The annual exam. An innocent term for something that causes so much stress. Everyone needs to see the doctor annually, but do they go? And, if they do go, are they getting the most out of it?
When it comes to health and wellness, most of us don’t know what we don’t know. Luckily, the team at Lumeca has the inside scoop on how to make sure you’re communicating well with your physician. When you understand why you need an annual exam, the benefits of prevention over treatment, and what to ask, your next appointment can be stress-free and productive.
Why do I need an annual exam?
Perhaps you’ve been too busy running between work and your kids’ many activities. Or maybe you have a feeling something is wrong, but you think your body will resolve it on its own. Yet, the annual checkup should be at the top of your yearly to-do list. This is especially true if you have been sick, have a chronic condition, have been taking new medications, or have a lifestyle change like pregnancy.
An annual checkup typically takes place with your general practitioner, who can refer you to a specialist if necessary. It may seem obvious, but the older you are, the more you benefit from yearly exams. Especially if you are in an age group at risk for certain diseases.
Annual checkups give you a safe place to discuss your health concerns, schedule tests like blood work, and strengthen the patient-doctor relationship. For women, yearly checkups that include a pelvic exam, pap smear, and breast exam can help “find problems before they start.” And for men, these checkups can include colorectal screenings and prostate-specific antigen tests.
The future of the annual exam
However, there is some evidence that for healthy people, traditional annual exams are an outdated way to experience total care. Adam Groll, of Harvard Medical School, suggests that we move to an “annual review of health, both going over concerns and coming up with a plan for prevention.” These wellness consultations would take the place of an annual checkup for people without specific health concerns.
If the model of care shifts, doctors will need to find “a more proactive way to monitor their patients’ attention to preventive care.” This shift could include using a telehealth app to schedule a virtual doctor’s appointment. Such a move would benefit people who are generally healthy but want to check in with a doctor. Telehealth can also help to ease patients’ anxiety over the annual exam. And, if more tests are necessary, a virtual visit can easily result in real-life testing.
Prevention versus treatment
Regardless of how future annual checkup happen, their focus should still be on prevention over treatment. In Canada and around the world, the health care system focuses on reactive care. Recent research has led to a renewed focus in the country to develop preventative strategies. Partaking in an annual checkup––virtual or IRL––is the first step to support the cycle of care.
The Canadian Task Force on Preventative Health Care developed clinical practice guidelines for national preventative healthcare. These guidelines target physicians, health professionals, policymakers, and Canadian citizens. Their clinical tools and research help to integrate preventative care into the Canadian healthcare system. Which, in turn, includes visits like annual checkups.
A CBC article showed that Canada could save billions of dollars by switching to preventative healthcare. The report also found the annual bill in Canada for an unhealthy person is “more than $10,000 higher than for someone in good health.” Moreover, those who are healthy tend to stay that way. Prevention saves not only billions but also time and stress. Imagine if your annual checkups focused on how to improve your health rather than fix a problem.
Questions to ask your doctor
Now that you understand the whys of your yearly appointment, it might help to arm yourself with questions to ask your doctor. We’ve compiled the best questions for your annual checkup. You know, the ones that doctors wish you asked.
How’s my blood pressure?
Most people do not have an at-home blood pressure to monitor your levels. Ask your doctor, or physician assistant, to explain your level when they take it. Monitoring your blood pressure can help you catch if it is too high or too low. High blood pressure is the “single biggest risk factor for heart disease, stroke, [and] congestive heart failure” to name a few.
What tests do I need to take?
You may not be a fan of testing, but it’s important. Recommendations are usually based on your age, sex, and health history, and can include colonoscopies, breast exams, or pap smears, to name a few.
How’s my weight?
Your doctor is there to help you, so try not to be embarrassed by this question. Excess weight can lead to other issues like heart disease and cancer. If you do need to lose weight, “you and your doctor can set a realistic slim-down goal and come up with a plan to make it happen.”
Am I eating the right food?
This is more than losing weight. It’s about proper nutrition and a holistic diet. Recommendations could include eating less saturated fat, more leafy greens and whole grains, and limiting your sugar intake. The new Food Guide is also a great resource. Keep in mind that “long-term success usually requires a combination of lifestyle changes” –– like changing your diet and adding exercise.
Do I need any vaccines?
For many of us, the flu shot is a given, but what about other vaccines? Some need to be boosted every ten years like the tetanus shot, whereas others depend on a person’s situation or age. Other vaccines could include pneumonia, shingles, measles, rubella, and hepatitis.
Does my family’s health history put me at risk?
Updating your family history with your doctor is an important step. Family history, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, certain cancers, and diseases like diabetes, can help inform your health plan. Plus, with DNA testing companies like 23andMe, it’s easier than ever to follow family and health history.
What do I need to do between now and my next exam?
Ask your doctor if you need to make any changes to your diet, weight, medications, or general lifestyle changes. Some of these could make a big difference to your daily health.
Other tips for your annual exam
Knowing what to ask is only one aspect of a successful annual checkup. If you still have some fear or anxiety about the appointment, there are things you can do to help.
Know what to expect
Exams usually begin with a vital sign check––your blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate. Physical exams typically include a doctor checking your eyes, ears, nose, and throat as well as testing your reflexes. For men, annual exams can also include a testicular exam, cholesterol test, or prostate screening. For women, tests can consist of a pelvic exam, mammogram, or osteoporosis screening.
Calm and distract yourself
If just being in a doctor’s office is stressful, try to distract yourself. “With modern devices, individuals can easily distract themselves from worrying thoughts by looking at their emails, going on social media sites, watching movies, scrolling through their pictures on their phones or listening to music.” Alternately, you could bring a family member or friend as support.
Remember your doctor is your advocate
Your doctor is there to keep you healthy and help address any concerns. An exam room should feel like a safe space where you can voice any concerns. And remember, your doctor is not there to judge you.
Get written or recorded resources
Just as writing down questions can help you write down resources as well. If your doctor suggests you try a new diet, get on a new medication, or have a screening, ask for more information. You are in control of your health.
Jot down suggestions from your doctor on a notepad or your phone. Notes make it easier to remember the points and allow you to focus on remembering your questions as well. Alternately, with your doctor’s permission, you can audio record the visit on your phone.
Don’t Google your symptoms
It’s tempting to use Dr. Google as a resource before an annual checkup, or instead of one. But it’s crucial to leave diagnosis to the professionals. If you have to look up something beforehand to ease anxiety, at least check out our tips to do it better.
It is your health. Be in charge of it.
Doctor’s appointments can be stressful events. You may not know what to ask, be afraid that something is wrong, or forgo the appointment altogether. However, annual exams are a great way to check-in with your health and make sure you are focused on prevention. Doctors are there to help their patients and make sure they receive excellent care. After all, they take the Hippocratic oath to do no harm. As such, to get the most out of your appointment, it is often helpful to take a list of questions with you. Whether you make a virtual or traditional annual checkup appointment, you can be better prepared.