Many of us have been raised to believe that annual physicals — also referred to as wellness exams — are required to maintain good health. Physicals are typically a benefit covered by insurance plans, seemingly putting them in the same category of preventive care as annual eye exams or biannual teeth cleanings. But is an annual physical really necessary? The answer might surprise you.
Scheduling a physical with your doctor should depend on your individual needs, not the calendar, according to Dr. Matthew Messoline, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. If you are generally in good health, you may not need an annual physical.
“It’s best to talk with your doctor to determine how often he or she would want to see you based on your individual health needs and goals,” Dr. Messoline says. “Of course, if you have a particular health issue that you feel needs attention, such as if you’re sick or have symptoms that should be evaluated, you should talk with your doctor to discuss your concern and schedule a regular appointment.”
Adults over age 65 and individuals with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, should also consult with their primary care physician, as their annual physical requirements may be different and they may need to come in twice a year.
How effective are annual physicals for healthy people?
Dr. Messoline explains that several studies on the effectiveness of annual physicals in healthy people have not demonstrated better health outcomes or reduced mortality rates in this group.
“Research has not proven that a scheduled yearly visit to the doctor can make a healthy person healthier,” he says. “In fact, annual physicals can increase the likelihood of unnecessary tests and screenings on healthy people with no risk factors. There is also an increased chance of false-positive results that can cause anxiety and unnecessary follow-up tests and treatments.”
When annual physicals incur an unwanted charge
An annual physical is a routine review of your general well-being. Sometimes patients assume they can use this time to discuss health concerns with their doctor.
Maybe you want to talk about that twinge in your lower back or stubborn sinus congestion you’ve been experiencing. After all, it seems like a convenient time because you’re at the doctor, right?
Bringing up other health issues is not part of any preventive or wellness exam, so patients could be charged for a problem-focused visit when performed with a preventive exam, like an annual physical. Later, patients are often shocked and unhappy when they receive a bill for what they thought was a free preventive service.
Scheduling a regular appointment with your doctor
Anytime you’d like to discuss a health concern with your doctor, you’re encouraged to make a regular appointment. During these regular appointments — whether they are in person or virtual — your doctor will also review any needed preventive care services.
For example, during a visit to discuss your lower back discomfort, your doctor may also notice it’s time to get your cholesterol checked or schedule a mammogram screening. Important elements of a wellness exam are incorporated into an appointment every time, with the care team working to ensure your health needs are met, regardless of the reason for your visit.
And for patients who don’t need to come in for a visit because they are healthy, Sharp Rees-Stealy reaches out to remind patients of necessary vaccines and screenings, based on published recommendations put forth by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
If you’re still unsure of when to make a regular appointment, Dr. Messoline suggests scheduling a visit with your doctor:
- When you are already sick
- When you have a symptom that could indicate illness
- To manage an ongoing or chronic condition
- To check on effects of a new medication
- For prenatal care
- For lifestyle issues such as family planning, STD prevention and healthy eating — especially important for young adults
- For other reasons based on your individual health needs
- If you haven’t had health care for a long time
“Patients can be assured we’re taking into account their total health when we see them,” says Dr. Messoline. “We are proud to offer outstanding preventive medicine at every visit,” says Dr. Messoline. “We really want patients to seek help when they need it, not just wait for a special annual visit to the doctor.”