You Asked: Do I Really Need an Annual Physical?

From TIME - January 10, 2018

A yearly check-in with a doctor seems undeniably prudent. He or she can listen to your heart, check your blood pressure and help you nip any looming health issues in the bud.

But while annual well visits are a familiar part of the health care system, a growing pile of evidence finds that for healthy people without any symptoms, these yearly physician exams are a waste of time and moneyand in some cases may do more harm than good.

One large-scale review, published in 2012, found that annual physical exams do nothing to improve a persons disease and mortality risks. Another recent study found a little evidence that annual physicals could reassure some people of their good health, and therefore reduce worry. But it did not find that these exams save lives or prevent disease.

As a result of these lackluster findings, some experts have called for an end to annual physicals.

If youre healthy, theres every reason to believe these visits make no difference, says Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor of health care management and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvanias Perelman School of Medicine. Doing a bunch of unnecessary tests and taking up valuable time for people who are wellthats not useful.

But it is expensive.

Roughly one in five adults gets an annual physicalalso known as a preventive health examination, or PHEand all those check-ups cost insurers and patients more than $5 billion annually, according to a 2007 study from Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School. (That figure doesnt take into account the billions in lost productivity that result from healthy adults taking time off from work to visit their doctors.)

Annual physicals are a big drag on physicians office hours and cut into their ability to spend time with sick patients in need, Mehrotra wrote in 2015 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In our [annual physical exam] trials, we have not seen any improvements in what we care about, which is longer and healthier lives, Mehrotra says. While older adultsthose 65 and abovemay benefit, younger people dont need this exam every year.


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