An annual physical is a preventive exam designed to promote wellness and detect health problems at early stages. You may ask: Why do I need an annual physical? What should I expect at my annual physical? How can I prepare for an annual physical? Let’s get some answers to these and other commonly asked questions!
Why do I need an annual physical?
An annual physical is an important health event for both you and your healthcare provider. Annual physicals help you tune-in with your health and provide a good opportunity to establish a trusting and supportive relationship with your healthcare provider. At your physical, you should tell your healthcare provider about how you feel both physically and mentally, voice any concerns you may have, and ask questions about your health. You will also obtain objective information about your health based on your provider’s exam findings, screenings, and lab work.
An annual physical is also important for your provider as they will have an opportunity to get to know you better as a patient and a person. By reviewing your history, performing an exam, hearing about your health concerns, and analyzing your lab results, your healthcare provider is able to obtain a thorough picture of your health. Even if you have been seeing your healthcare provider for many years, a physical exam is a great way to review your health status, discuss any changes, and update your health goals.
Ideally, once you have completed your physical, both you and your healthcare provider should have a solid and comprehensive picture of your overall health.
What kind of questions will my healthcare provider ask?
An annual physical begins with your medical history. Medical history includes:
- Past medical history, which includes things like your medical conditions, injuries, medications, allergies, and vaccinations.
- Past surgical history, which includes all prior minor and major surgeries.
- Family history, which provides a glimpse into your family’s medical background and your health heritage. This is important as some health conditions tend to run in families. Moreover, as medical science learns more about genetic basis of various ailments, family history becomes more important.
- Social history, which includes information about one’s occupation, social habits, work, and family dynamics as well as social support networks. The importance of social history comes from understanding that humans are “social creatures” and that our social surroundings have influence on our behavior and health. An individual’s interactions with their social environment may be a source of strength and better health outcomes or a source of negative influence leading to stresses and poor health choices. Questions about diet, exercise, smoking, drug use, sexual health, and social status are an important and clinically significant part of social history.
Histories should be taken thoroughly during the first annual physical and updated on all follow-up annual visits.
What should I expect during the exam?
During your annual physical, you should expect that your healthcare professional will check your vital signs. Vital signs measurement includes your pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate, temperature, height, and weight. Your healthcare provider will use your height and weight to calculate your body mass index (BMI).
Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam including an evaluation of your ears, nose and throat, cardiovascular system and lungs, abdomen, extremities, nerves, skin, and genitalia. Importantly, if your healthcare provider is of the opposite gender, they should offer to have a chaperone of the same gender as you in the room during an exam involving genitalia and/or breast.
What kind of preventative measures should I expect?
Screenings are primary prevention tools used to test for various health conditions before any symptoms arise. Screenings may include questionnaires, lab tests, specialized exams, or diagnostic imaging. Some screenings are universal such as lab tests or screening for depression. Other screenings are individually selected based on factors such as age, gender, personal and family history, body mass index (BMI), etc.
Many medical conditions can be detected early. Early detection may allow for timely evaluation, treatment, prevention of complications, and positive outcomes. Guidelines for screenings are updated based on the most current evidence-based findings. Visiting your primary healthcare provider for an annual physical will help you stay up to date on all the important health screenings.
In addition to screenings, your healthcare provider should review your vaccine history and offer boosters or new vaccines if needed.
Will I need a referral?
You may be referred for health screenings, such as mammograms for breast cancer, digital rectal exams for prostate cancer, colonoscopy for colon cancer, or a DEXA scan for osteoporosis. Your healthcare provider may refer you if you need more specialized care or evaluations. For example, if you have diabetes, your healthcare provider may ask you to see your eye doctor at least yearly for a thorough check of the eyes, or you may be referred to a podiatrist for a full foot exam.
How can I prepare for an annual physical?
An annual physical normally lasts 30 to 60 minutes and so it is important to schedule your appointment accordingly. Blood tests are usually a part of the exam. Some of these tests, such as lipid panel to check for cholesterol, require overnight fasting. So, it is a good idea to ask your healthcare provider if you need to fast. Fasting means no food or drink, except water, for an 8- to 12-hour period prior to the blood test. Some medical providers allow black coffee or black tea during fasting. However, these beverages contain caffeine which may increase your heart rate and blood pressure at the time of your physical.
It is also a good idea to bring either a list all of your medications, supplements, and dosages or the medications and supplements themselves. This can help your healthcare provider look for any interactions with your medications and/or supplements. Bring in any medical records and tell your healthcare provider about any emergency room visits or visits with any specialists. Finally, wearing loose and comfortable clothing and easily removable footwear will help you ensure a more confident and seamless experience during your annual physical.
Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, “Caffeine: How does it affect blood pressure?,” Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/expert-answers/blood-pressure/faq-20058543
MedlinePlus, “Health Screening,” https://medlineplus.gov/healthscreening.html