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3 Things to Think About Before Your Annual Physical

September 17, 2018

Annual wellness exams are a key component of preventive medicine, and that’s why most plans offer them at no cost. They give you and your physician a chance to set a benchmark for your current state of health and offer a point of comparison against previous years’ results.

Whether you make an annual wellness exam your first entry in every year’s new calendar — or you’re about to have your first physical in years — it’s good to know what to expect. Because the appointment can go by quickly, it’s also smart to think through any questions or concerns you want to share with your doctor.

In general, these visits have three basic components:

  • A personal interview
  • A physical exam
  • A range of possible tests
Personal Health Interview

At first it may seem like your doctor is simply engaging in friendly conversation, asking about your general health and family, but those questions have a specific purpose. Questions about a new job or relationship issues can be a way to understand if you’re under any new or increased stress. And if your doctor asks if any activities have gotten more difficult lately, your answer could signal a need for a specific test or a possible medication interaction. So it’s best to take those questions seriously, and not treat them as conversation starters.

Similarly, if you have questions of your own, and it’s a good idea to make an annual physical exam checklist ahead of time and bring it with you. Here are some questions to get you started—there’s only one you, so tailor the questions to your concerns and life circumstances:

  • How healthy is my weight?
  • What should I be eating more or less of?
  • Do I still need all my medications?
  • What vaccinations do I need?
  • Are there other screenings I should have?
  • What online medical resources can I trust?
The Annual Physical Exam

This might be the part you’re least looking forward to, but the physical exam is at the heart of your annual wellness visit. It’s how your doctor gets an accurate view of your current state of health. You can expect this exam to include:

  • A check of vital signs. This will include a standard body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure check, and a measurement of your blood-oxygen level. Also, depending on your risk factors, your doctor might recommend an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check your heart rhythm.
  • A general visual exam. It may seem like your doctor is giving you a very basic visual once-over, but a medical professional can learn a lot from your general appearance. Your doctor will be considering your skin tone, any blemishes, whether your eyes are red or clear, and more.
  • A physical check. Your doctor will check your heart and lung function using a stethoscope to listen for an irregular heartbeat and any wheezing or crackling sounds in your lungs. Tapping around your abdomen can help detect both liver size and the possible presence of fluid. Measuring your pulse at your wrists and ankles can help identify possible circulation problems. Also, there may be a pelvic exam for women and a prostate exam for men.
Laboratory Tests

Doctors sometimes, depending on your general health and age, may prescribe a urinalysis and a number of annual physical exam blood tests around the time of your wellness exam. Some want these tests done prior to your visit, while others prefer to wait until after the exam, in case questions arise that need further investigation. Typical tests include:

  • Complete blood count, to check for anemia, possible infections and other potential problems.
  • Renal panel, to understand how well your kidneys are functioning.
  • Liver panel, to identify any possible liver conditions.
  • Lipid panel, to see if your cholesterol falls within healthy levels.
  • Blood glucose, to understand if you’re at risk for diabetes or prediabetes.
  • Urinalysis, to check for blood, proteins or other substances that could indicate problems.
Wrapping It Up

Your final question as your appointment ends might be what to work on before your next annual physical exam. This can be a good time to get help setting goals for more exercise or diet changes, or perhaps set a weight-loss target. Or your doctor could just tell you to keep up the good work for another year. Regardless, with the results from the exam and testing, you’ll have written targets to meet or exceed over the year ahead.