Seeing your family doctor for an annual checkup is important for several reasons. First of all, it gives your doctor the chance to perform and arrange for health screenings appropriate to your age and circumstances. Screening tests may include blood pressure screening, a cholesterol test, a mammogram to check for breast cancer, a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer, and other testing based on your own personal health risk profile, which includes family history and lifestyle choices. Your annual checkup is also a time when your doctor can give you immunizations that can protect you against serious illnesses such as pneumonia, meningitis or shingles.
This is a perfect time for you and your doctor to get a sense of your general health and to come up with a plan for you to be as healthy as possible so that you can reach your personal and health related goals. You will review any health risk factors you might have and what you can do to reduce those risks. A routine physical can detect problems early on, while treatment is still possible. It can help to treat a problem if caught early enough, and can even avoid problems from turning into something more serious. For example, your exam could uncover that you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Both of these may have no symptoms, but if left untreated, they can cause serious complications, including heart attack or stroke. This is why it’s so important to stay on top of your health and make sure you are having regular checkups. Just like you take your car for it’s annual inspection, you should be taking yourself and your loved ones for an annual tune up.
To make your visit more productive, it helps to be honest with your doctor. They’re going to be asking you some personal questions about your family history, your lifestyle and past medical history, all of which are taken into consideration when calculating your health risks. It especially helps if you can bring a copy of your immunization records or any records from your previous health care providers. It may even help to look up the latest preventive medicine guidelines so you’ll know what to expect and what questions to ask.
Your annual physical is an opportunity for you to ask your doctor anything you want about your weight, any addictions you might be fighting, alcohol abuse, or other concerns. Your doctor is more than willing to explain your health risk factors and to give you advice on these matters. You might feel fine and have no major concerns, but the annual exam is a great opportunity to talk to you doctor and share with her some of the little concerns you may have in regards to your health. Maybe you have really dry skin or you may be wondering how you can get a better night’s sleep. It could be that some of these concerns you have actually give your doctor some clues to something more serious going on, or your doctor can reassure you that these are not serious and come up with a plan to improve your health and reach your goals.
A physical is NOT the time to discuss what is bothering you head to toe or to review ongoing medical problems such as migraines or chronic pain. These kinds of issues are better addressed in a follow up appointment of their own, where the doctor can focus the entire visit to your concern.
Nowadays, most doctors use Electronic Health Records, which means that all of your medical records are in digital form. This can enhance your visit in many ways. If you are a new patient, it may take a few minutes to input your information, such as vital signs and past medical history, but once it is in there, you won’t have to worry about telling your story over and over again. If you have had checkups in the past, your doctor can share with you any progress you have made in improving your health. For example, they can show you a graph of how your blood pressure has been running, if you have had any changes in your weight, or any improvement in your cholesterol count. It is especially beneficial to be able to leave the office with something tangible in hand that outlines your current risk factors and your plan to improve your overall health. You can think of it as a report card of your health status.
If your doctor orders certain screening tests, such as a pap smear or a cholesterol test, you should always make sure you get your results and understand what they mean. It is up to you whether you prefer to receive these results in writing, over the phone, or face-to-face. Some offices may have their own procedures in terms of how they handle test results. If all of your screening tests were normal and your risk factors were minimal, make sure you come back in a year for another checkup to make sure you stay that way. If the doctor picked up some risk factors, she may want you to come back sooner to closely monitor your progress.
Some screening exams, like a colonoscopy, may need to be done at another facility. This may mean that the responsibility lies on you to call and arrange those tests. If you need any help in setting up these appointments, please don’t hesitate to ask your family doctor for help. She will be more than happy to help you.
Everyone should know that there are clinics and programs that offer free screenings for people without health insurance or offer reduced fees for low income patients. When you call a doctor’s office to schedule a physical, make sure you ask about their payment options or if they can refer you to a free screening program.
So, if it’s been more than 2 years since your last checkup, I encourage you to pick up the phone today to schedule one. If you need a primary doctor, you can call your insurance company for recommendations or search online for a doctor in your area.