It’s true that you go see your doc for your annual physical exam and she listens to your heart and checks your reflexes. There is something about the doctor checking under the hood that is comforting. But the annual physician visit matters in ways you may not expect, so you might be surprised to find that the following items aren’t the most important piece of your annual visit:
The Annual Physical Exam
The physical is important, to be sure, but a great deal of information the doctor needs to help you live the healthiest life possible is gathered in other ways. In fact the list of physical items a doctor needs to check during an annual exam is often short.
The same goes for lab work. Everybody loves data – it feels like it provides some sense of control. There are certain tests your doctor will likely order at your annual visit, though they will vary based on factors such as your current health status, family history, and age.
However it’s important to remember that more data doesn’t necessarily mean better data. A good doctor will focus lab testing to diagnose specific symptoms or prevent particular diseases. The results don’t stand alone – the doctor interprets them in the context of physical exam findings and your medical history. A doctor who judiciously selects lab work and interprets it based on the whole picture will help you avoid false positive tests. False positives are test results that suggest there is a problem when there isn’t. They can send you down the road of additional, more expensive, and often more invasive testing.
Cancer screening is very important, but it all doesn’t have to happen every year. Many women, for example, are able to space pap smears out every three to five years. A colonoscopy is only ordered every ten years after age 50 for most people. Prostate screening may not even be necessary at all. These screening tests will be ordered according to the most current consensus of medical experts and your own history and symptoms.
What Matters Most at the Annual Exam?
Conversation. Out of all the people in your life, your doctor is the one you should be the most honest with. Try not to dismiss this as less important than physical exams and labs. These conversations provide critical information your doctor needs to help you stay healthy. You might not want your book club friends to know about how much you really drink or about your sexual habits. And it might be even more difficult to admit to them that you are feeling depressed or overwhelmed with anxiety.
But the real point of an annual visit to your doctor isn’t to treat a specific problem – you can schedule an office visit any time to address troubling symptoms. The point of the annual exam is to act to prevent or slow disease. And when you build a close relationship with your doctor through honest discussion at your annual exams, they will be in the best position to help you avoid developing health problems whenever they may occur.
Remember, your doctor counts your willingness to confide in him as a high honor and will protect any information you share. And the information you share with your doctor, more than your knee reflexes or a lab test, might be the thing that keeps you alive and healthy longer.