Only one in five adults comes in for an annual wellness visit each year. Yet regular physical exams are critical in preventing illness and identifying disease before it becomes a problem.
“Annual physicals are an important part of preventive care to promote overall health,” says Rebecca Ferguson, DO, a family medicine physician at Summit Health. “They are also essential for monitoring chronic health conditions to prevent future decline.”
Many healthy adults wonder if it is necessary to come in once a year for a wellness exam if they have no problems to report. Even though it may seem unnecessary, an annual wellness exam is essential since primary care physicians (PCPs) are the first line of defense in preventing, detecting, and managing your medical conditions. As a result, Dr. Ferguson urges patients to stick to their annual schedule.
The goals of a routine physical are to prevent health issues as well as identify problems before they start. “Physicals are an opportunity to learn about how to stay healthy and prevent disease. Additionally, they are a time to detect serious medical conditions and initiate treatment at an earlier stage. They promote healthier lifestyles and optimize treatment for chronic conditions,” she explains.
Individuals with risk factors for disease, or who are already diagnosed with chronic conditions, need more frequent follow-up care, but even if you have no medical issues, the annual wellness exam can help you stay that way. Additionally, seeing a specialist is not a substitute for your annual appointment. Your PCP can help coordinate the care you are getting from multiple specialists. The wellness exam is also an opportunity to focus on prevention, screening and health maintenance that may not be addressed during visits to manage your acute and chronic conditions.
Dr. Ferguson says it is vital to find a physician you can speak with openly and honestly. “The most important benefit of the annual wellness visit is to establish your medical home and develop a relationship with a PCP who knows you well. Your PCP should be professional and respectful. They should treat patients as individuals, be patient in explaining medical terms, and provide proper treatment options and follow-up care. PCPs should be willing to work with patients to achieve patients’ specific health goals,” she advises.
Your annual physical is a check-up for your entire body. Here are 12 important health topics Dr. Ferguson covers during the wellness exam.
- Family History and Risk Factors – What are your personal red flags? Factors like age, race, gender, environmental exposures, or family history can elevate your chances of developing certain diseases and conditions. Family physicians like Dr. Ferguson will discuss how you can reduce your risk.
- Height/Weight – Do you know your body mass index (BMI)? Nearly two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. Carrying around extra pounds can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
- Blood Pressure – When was the last time you had your blood pressure checked? High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because it does not have any symptoms. Approximately 1 in 3 adults with high blood pressure is not aware of it. The condition is frequently found during an annual exam.
- Physical Exam – When was the last time you checked your body from head to toe? Have you seen changes with your breasts, testicles, skin or mouth? This is a time to ask you physician about these potential health risks. Your primary care provider will look for any unusual moles, lumps, or other potential signs of disease.
- Health Goals – Are you eating as cleanly as possible and feeling as physically fit as you want to be? Dr. Ferguson offers advice to help patients eat better and exercise more.
- Cancer Screenings – Is it time for your screening tests? Mammograms and colonoscopies save countless lives each year. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on your medical and family history, your physician may want you to have the tests earlier than the recommended ages. Lung cancer screenings are also available now for patients who have a history of smoking.
- Vaccinations – Are you up to date on your immunizations? Your primary care or family medicine physician keeps a record of all your vaccinations and will let you know when it is time for a booster. Ferguson recommends that everyone who is eligible receive an annual flu vaccine, as well as staying up to date with the COVID-19 vaccine. Tdap boosters are generally given every ten years. A zoster vaccine at age 50 can help prevent a painful outbreak of shingles. Adults 65 and older should get a pneumococcal vaccination. If you have chronic medical conditions, other vaccines may also be needed. And all patients are encouraged to get the COVID-19 vaccine once eligible.
- Progression of Chronic Conditions – Do you have a disease that needs to be managed regularly? Some individuals with conditions like diabetes are managed by their primary care physician, while others see a specialist like an endocrinologist. Even if you are under the care of another doctor, your PCP is an important member of the team. They focus on the health of the entire body.
- Medication Management – Do you take multiple pills each day? Nearly half of adults take at least one medication. Dr. Ferguson monitors her patients’ medications, which ensures they are both being taken properly and are having the intended benefit.
- Psychological and Emotional Health – How is your mental health? Research suggests only half of people with mental illness receive treatment. If you are experiencing any feelings of depression or anxiety, the wellness visit is an opportunity to discuss your options and obtain a referral for counseling if needed.
- Reviewing Healthful and Harmful Behaviors – Are you being careful? Dr. Ferguson discusses any risky habits with her patients such as smoking, drinking, substance use, and potentially unsafe sexual practices. She also discusses preventive habits such as seatbelts, sunscreen, and bike helmets.
- Routine Blood Work and Other Tests- Do you know your latest numbers? Based on your age, gender, and risk factors, blood tests may be ordered to catch numerous medical problems before they start. Many patients who find out they have prediabetes or elevated cholesterol can reverse course by making lifestyle modifications.
Depending on the patient’s physical exam results and medical history, the PCP may order additional tests, such as a urine panel or an electrocardiogram (EKG). Some patients are also referred to specialists for follow-up care.
So whether you have not seen a doctor all year or have had multiple visits for your medical conditions, an annual wellness visit is an important opportunity to focus on screening, wellness, and development of a strong patient-PCP relationship. Schedule your visit today.