You feel good, you don’t smoke, and nothing aches or creaks when you stand up. You don’t need an annual physical, right?

There’s something of a debate going on about the need for an annual exam. A 2013 study suggests that people only need to see a physician for a medical reason. For the most part, the study found, routine physicals fail to reduce deaths, hospitalizations and overall costs.

In addition, critics say the testing that stems from the physical often triggers a host of unnecessary follow-up tests that can waste time and money.

So what’s the point?
“Perhaps the most important part of an annual physical exam is building a relationship with your primary care physician,” says Joseph Diaz, MD, chief of the Department of Medicine at Memorial Hospital. “It’s important to have someone you trust collaborating with you on your health care and you can’t do that if you only come in when something is wrong.”

When you have a good, trusting relationship with your doctor, you can ask about health care news you’ve read or heard about, or bring up a mental health concern. When your sick appointment is squeezed in on a busy day, your provider doesn’t have time to discuss these things and you likely wouldn’t remember to ask.

There are two distinct times in our lives that physicals are important, Diaz says. Children should have annual visits because:

  • They are exposed to different environments and situations.
  • They might be exposed to potential hazards such as lead paint.
  • Childhood obesity is a growing concern.

In addition, as we age, he says the risk of medical issues cropping up increases. At an annual appointment, your provider will:

  • Send you for a screening colonoscopy if you are over the age of 50.
  • Perform cervical cancer screening if you are female and under the age of 65.
  • Order blood tests for HIV or hepatitis C.
  • Perform a lung cancer screening if you are a heavy smoker.
  • Give you any appropriate vaccination to prevent disease.

Doctors are working to target the annual exam to the health, age and gender of their patients to be more cost-effective and helpful, Diaz continues.

He suggests patients develop a comfortable relationship with their primary care provider and ask questions whenever they’re in the doctor’s office. That way, they can still go for an annual – or opt not – and their health care needs are addressed.

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