The Gift of Health: Physical Exams
Life feels like it gets more frantic every year, and it's easy for our health to get shunted to the bottom of our priority list, especially during the holidays. We need to buy presents, visit with family members and prepare mountains of food—and remind those relatives how to behave at the dinner table.
But it's time to transform taking care of your health from another annoying item on the to-do list into a little self-care gift to round out the year.
Although a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 92 percent of Americans acknowledge the importance of an annual physical, only 62 percent actually get the exam.
What is a physical?
A physical examination is a routine test your primary care physician (PCP) performs to check your overall physical health. A PCP may be a doctor, a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. The exam is also known as a wellness exam. You do not have to be sick to request an exam. During the exam, your provider performs a check on your overall health by monitoring any signs or symptoms of a possible medical condition.
A physical exam is also a good time to ask your provider questions about your health or discuss any changes or problems that you have noticed.
"It is a chance to speak to your doctor or general practitioner about how you have felt over the last year with regards to physical and mental health, and a chance for the doctor, depending on your age, to discuss, examine and arrange investigations for conditions that might be prevalent for your age," said Hana Patel, M.B.B.S., a general practitioner, specialist in women's health and mindset coach in the United Kingdom. "You may also have a height, weight, blood pressure and urine check done."
The doctor also discusses your medical and family history, which they use to determine if there is any need for additional testing. Taking a history enables your provider to monitor predispositions to medical conditions and keep track of any developing health issues, as well as either establish or update your medical records.
Why should you get one?
Getting an annual physical exam is a key component of preventive healthcare. It gives your doctor a baseline to work from during future checkups, particularly for people who are at higher risk of developing a medical condition.
"[It's an] opportunity for your doctor to find the presence of a disease before you get symptoms [screening] or before the disease progresses, improving treatment and outcome," Patel explained. "It also gives the ability to diagnose patients before symptoms surface, helping to lessen the severity of symptoms and promote quality of life."
The regularity of your physical exam depends on your health status and age, so healthy people should consider organizing a physical every two to three years in their 20s and increase to every other year in their 30s and 40s. People in their 50s and older are advised to have a checkup annually. If you have preexisting conditions or disabilities, consider getting an annual physical.
Getting an annual physical exam is a key component of preventive healthcare.
"Perhaps think of the most common diseases for your age group and be proactive about this to focus on your age," Patel added.
The likelihood of developing certain conditions increases with age, such as prostate cancer for men after age 50 and breast cancer in women after age 40, so increase the regularity as you hit each milestone.
Some people, especially younger people, are not recommended to get a regular physical, so be proactive and request one when needed. It may feel unnecessary if you have no concerning symptoms, but exams are a valuable tool for tracking health status.
How can I arrange one?
"Sometimes people without insurance think physicals can be costly," said Camilo Andrés Ruiz, D.O., a concierge medicine physician and sleep medicine expert in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "Most doctors have self-pay rates that can be affordable to most."
If you're unsure of your insurance benefits, do not hesitate to call and ask. There are also many low-cost or free healthcare clinics that can offer assistance. For people without insurance, freeclinics.com provides a list of available centers in your area and the Institute for Family Health also has online resources for affordable healthcare.
The Affordable Care Act also dictates that insurance policyholders must be eligible for physical exams at no extra cost.
"Finding a doctor that you can feel comfortable talking to about your health is important," Ruiz said. "I think continued community outreach and education can reduce the stigma about yearly physicals and lead to better patient engagement."
If you feel uncomfortable asking your provider for a physical, consider shopping around for a doctor who feels like a better fit.
Anyone who needs accessibility accommodations should make the doctor's staff aware of their needs before an appointment. They can provide interpreters or other support staff to make your physical a seamless experience.
If you have any auditory processing issues, bring a supportive person to sit in on the appointment. They can advocate for you, help make sense of confusing information and act as a sounding board for issues and concerns.
Remember that you are in control during any doctor's appointment. Your boundaries are valid and should be respected. If there are any tests or measurements that you do not want to partake in, speak up. You are not required to undergo any tests that cause discomfort or distress.
What is it like to get an exam?
As I am disabled and chronically ill, I try to get a physical once a year, and this process can be an interesting one. My medical history is long and complicated, so I refer to my own notes. If the doctor or nurse is unfamiliar to me, I request that they read my summary before asking any questions so they can work from a clear baseline.
At the beginning of a physical, my doctor reviews my general medical history and asks if there are any issues I am concerned about. They follow up with a general physical check, measuring my height and taking some baseline blood tests. Sometimes they conduct further examinations if there are specific problems, such as pressure-testing my abdomen or looking at any mysterious lumps or bumps.
Due to a history of disordered eating and overexercising, I refuse to get weighed at all medical appointments. It does not feel necessary to protect my health. Setting boundaries with medical professionals can sometimes be a daunting prospect at first, but now, after many general physicals, I feel confident asserting my needs.
However, each patient has to determine their own boundaries and work with their healthcare provider to decide the best course of action during a physical examination.
Getting a physical is always a seamless process, and it gives me peace of mind knowing I have a clear understanding of my health status at all times.
The gift of health checks
Health is a precious gift, and some of us have more trouble with it than others, so reframing it as a top priority is important for everyone. Learn to shrug off the what-ifs and view healthcare as a self-care gift. There is nothing to fear from having full and complete knowledge of your health status.
As Ruiz said, "There is never a better time to get involved in your health than today."
It may feel a little strange, especially if you are a younger person, but regular physicals should be a gift, not a nuisance. So treat yourself and get a physical as soon as possible.