Do You Need a Yearly Physical?

It can help you stay on top of screenings, vaccines and your long-term health
stethoscope on calendar to mark annual physical

You usually call your doctor when you feel sick or when something’s wrong. So the idea of visiting them when you feel OK might seem counterintuitive.

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But seeing your primary care provider on the regular can benefit you in ways you might not realize. Think of your provider as your partner in your long-term health.

“You need a trusted primary care provider that you can talk to about your concerns – whether they are mental health needs or changes in your family history or any other health issues that come up,” says family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD.

There’s not an exact formula for how often you should see your doctor when you’re feeling good. Maybe it’s every year, or maybe it’s more or less often. That’s something you and your provider can decide together based on your age and your unique health history, risks and needs.

How primary care providers help you

Your primary care provider might be a physician, a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner. They’re trained to spot and manage health problems, including chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease. These are some of the biggest health threats in the U.S., and they often hide in plain sight.

“Catching and treating diseases early leads to better health outcomes,” Dr. Vyas says.

Your provider can also suggest lifestyle changes to keep you healthy or address any nagging concerns you’ve put off, like an achy joint or an odd-looking mole you’ve been meaning to have looked at.

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Plus, routine well checks are good opportunities to build your relationship with your provider. That way, he or she will already know your health background, risk factors and concerns if you do get sick.

“Even if you’re young and healthy, it’s important to establish care with a provider so you have someone who knows your history to go to when something comes up,” Dr. Vyas says.

Your primary care provider can also help you:

  • Stay on track with cancer screenings: Are you due for a mammogram? Or a colonoscopy? Each screening test comes with its own set of recommendations for who should get it and how often. Your provider will know the recommended schedules and can help keep you on track.
  • Stay up to date on vaccines: Did you know that adults should get a tetanus booster shot every 10 years? Certain adults might also be recommended to get vaccinated against HPV, shingles and other infectious diseases.
  • Get in touch with a specialist: If you need more specialized testing or care for a particular health concern, your primary care provider can point you in the right direction.
  • Check in on your mental health: This one’s especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as nearly everyone’s life has been changed or disrupted in some way. Many people are experiencing an uptick in stress, anxiety and grief. “Now is a good time to address your mental health needs,” Dr. Vyas says.

What happens at an annual physical?

What your checkup with your provider entails will vary from person to person, but you can expect that he or she will:

  • Ask about your health history: This is an opportunity to bring up any changes in your family health history or any concerns you have. Have you noticed a change in your period? Now is the time to bring it up. Your provider might also ask about your exercise, smoking and drinking habits.
  • Check height and weight: Your provider will use your height and weight measurement to calculate your body mass index. A high BMI is associated with increased risk for cancer, heart disease and stroke.
  • Take your vital signs: Your vital signs are measurements of your body’s basic functions. Drastic changes in your body temperature, pulse or breathing rate could be signs of an underlying medical problem.
  • Check your blood pressure. Having high blood pressure raises your risk of stroke, heart attack, kidney damage and heart failure. The good news? There are many changes you can make to your daily lifestyle to bring it down to a healthy level.
  • Do a physical exam: Your provider will use a hand-held light to look into your eyes, ears and throat to spot any issues. They’ll also use a stethoscope to listen to your heart and lungs for any irregular sounds that could suggest heart or lung problems.

If you’re a woman, a pelvic exam and/or Pap test might also be part of your physical. These exams look for signs cervical cancer, HPV or any other gynecological issues. However, not all primary care providers do these women’s health exams and may refer you to an Ob/Gyn instead.

If you’re a man, your doctor might do additional exams to check for signs of testicular cancer, prostate cancer or hernia.

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Your provider might also order blood tests to check your cholesterol, electrolyte or blood sugar levels, for example. Blood tests can shed light on how well your organs are working and are helpful in diagnosing diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Don’t delay medical care during the pandemic

Wondering whether it’s safe to keep up with routine medical appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic? Dr. Vyas has some reassurance: “Healthcare providers have spent a lot of time and effort to ensure the safety of caregivers and patients,” she says. “We’re screening everyone who comes in for COVID-19 symptoms, requiring that everyone wear a mask, encouraging social distancing and cleaning copiously.”

Putting off routine appointments or tests during the pandemic could lead to problems being detected later.

If you don’t feel comfortable going to their office to see your provider in-person, you might be able to schedule a virtual appointment. Though you won’t get the full work-up this way, a virtual visit is a convenient way to touch base with your provider and talk through any concerns you have.

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