Getting an annual physical seems like the smart, grown-up thing to do, but then again, so does finding a job with decent insurance. Easier said than done!
In theory, though, it's a reasonable concept: You typically have your vitals checked, maybe get some routine blood work, and exaggerate to your doctor just how often you work out and how few alcoholic beverages you have a week.
But repeating the same exam every year may be a thing of the past. In fact, many doctors and researchers agree that the idea of an annual physical isn't just a waste of time and money, it could actually be doing more harm in the long run. Obviously you can't avoid your doctor forever, but how often do you actually need to pay him or her a visit?
Healthy people don't need a yearly physical
It's always great to check in with your doctor from time to time, especially if you notice a major change in your health. But for the most part, the average healthy person can hold off on seeing the doctor every year.
"There really is no necessity to insist on an annual physical for reasonably healthy people with no actual complaints or concerns," says Dr. Malcolm Thaler, a provider at One Medical. He adds that if a patient really wants an annual physical (for whatever reason), he won't discourage it, mostly because it fosters a healthy rapport between doctor and patient. But the nuts and bolts of a physical exam are totally unnecessary for people in good health.
Even for people who may be in poor health, it's a catch-22; you definitely need to see the doctor more frequently, but a yearly physical may be too general. People with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, or hypertension should be seeing their doctor for regular follow-ups anyway, so a physical is pretty unnecessary since their main concerns are addressed during these appointments.
Annual physicals can cause unnecessary stress
Luckily, insurance usually covers the cost of a yearly physical. But sometimes, the exams can be more expensive than just the doctor's visit copay.
"By seeing someone unnecessarily, too frequently, there's a danger of over-testing, over-diagnosing patients, and ordering tests that are not necessary," Dr. Thaler says.
These follow-up tests can be expensive, and Dr. Thaler says they could even produce a false positive. "Not only does it increase costs, but it's going to lead to heightened anxiety in your patients," he adds. If you're using your annual physical as a way to run every test under the sun, only to find nothing wrong, there's a good chance you're throwing your money away.
OK, so when should I get them then?
You can't avoid going to the doctor forever, though you can certainly try to cheat death. But you can put it off if you're young, healthy, and don't engage in any risky health behaviors like smoking or drinking too much -- Dr. Thaler says every three to five years should be sufficient.
"I'd encourage someone young, who's never seen a physician for anything, to establish themselves with their primary care physician and have an initial, entry-level, comprehensive evaluation," he adds. "Based on that, you can determine how often they need to come see you again."
The biggest problem with annual physicals, he says, is that they're too cookie-cutter. Assessing a patient isn't a one-size-fits-all approach -- everyone is different, after all -- so Dr. Thaler advises physicians to tailor comprehensive evaluations to each patient, with the focus more on a conversation with the doctor instead of arbitrary tests.
In general, it's always a good idea to see your doctor if you think something's messed up, and definitely if you have a chronic health condition or a family history of one. Otherwise, you're better off using a common-sense approach to health -- exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, form strong social relationships -- than you are worrying about a yearly exam.