Annual health exams are pretty normal, but whether they're necessary is up for debate. Years ago, I asked my doctor for a checkup and he chuckled, pointing out that I seemed fine. So, is this annual tradition really a necessity? It boils down to three simple questions.
Seeing a doctor is obviously a pretty personal affair, so there's no easy way to make a guideline that works for everyone. If you have pre-existing conditions or already visit your doctor regularly, continue doing what you're doing. We're going to look at what the subset of people who are generally healthy and haven't seen a doctor recently should do. That means no major prior illnesses, no obvious health ailments, or anything other obvious health visits. We're also sticking to regular old primary care physicians here, so specialised care, including OB-GYNs, are something you'll want to talk with your doctor about for a specific recommendation.
Otherwise, you can ask yourself three questions. If you answer "no" to any of these, it's time to book your first appointment. I spoke with primary care physician Dr. Dan Weiswasser to get to the heart of these questions.
Have I Been Seen in My Doctor Office Before?
If you've moved to a new city or changed insurance providers, then you probably have to pick a new general practitioner. Regardless of your age, this is a good time to make an appointment for a wellness exam. This exam provides the baseline for any potential future problems.
As the name suggests, wellness exams are all about prevention and typically incorporate a few very simple tests, including: blood pressure screening, cholesterol screening, and depending on your weight or risk factors, a diabetes screening. All told, it's a short appointment with some tests and blood work that provide the standard for where you're at when you're healthy. If anything does come up, you and your doctor will come up with a checkup schedule for future exams.
The purpose of the wellness exam is to take a step back from problem-based visits and get a bigger picture of your health. This way, your doctor can not only catch potential problems you might not be aware of, but also can establish what your test results are when you're healthy.
Am I Caught Up on My Screenings and Vaccinations?
A big aspect of going to the doctor is preventative screenings. These screenings vary based on age, gender, personal medical issues, family medical issues, habits, and more. There are hundreds of tests, services, and exams out there so check with your general practitioner to see which ones would be suitable for you.
Aside from screenings, Dr. Weiswasser also recommends you make sure your immunisations are up to date.
If you are up-to-date on all your screenings and vaccinations, you should be good to go. If not, schedule a visit and talk to your doctor about what you might be missing..
Do I Have a Healthy Lifestyle or Know How to Live One?
Finally, there's one very simple thing a doctor can help with even when you feel healthy: How to feel even better. Nobody's perfect, and unless you're doing a ton of research, you probably aren't sure you're eating right or getting a good amount of exercise. If you have questions, then your doctor can answer them, or direct you to the people who can. In a way, this comes back to the wellness exam we discussed earlier. The tests in a wellness exam help your doctor guide you to a healthier lifestyle. Weiswasser explains:
Many of us are simply not clear on how we should be staying healthy, beyond those topics addressed by the USPSTF. Such questions may include "what kind of exercise should I do?", "how should I eat?", and "how much should I weigh?" Others know what they should be doing but benefit from the proverbial "kick in the pants" that one can get from an objective professional telling you that you should be taking better care of yourself.
The point is, depending on your own self-awareness, your doctor can make it easier to figure out what you should be doing. Perhaps you're healthy, but slightly over (or under) weight. Or maybe your blood pressure is great right now, but it's on the line to potentially get worse. Essentially, if you're not sure that what you're doing is working, or if you're not sure what to do next, a doctor visit can suss all that out.
If you answered yes to all these questions, then you don't really need to see a doctor as long as you're feeling healthy. The yearly checkup isn't a rule as much as it used to be, and with health care as expensive as it is, it's not a hard and fast rule. Don't just schedule a doctor's visit because you feel like you're supposed to. If you've done all of the above, a good doctor should give you a reasonable timeline for what to do next and when they'd like to see you again.
Illustration by Sam Wooley.