I used to get a physical every year or two. But now my doctor’s office says I should have an annual wellness visit instead. What’s the difference?
A. In the past, a routine, general check-up involved your doctor asking how you felt and if anything bothered you, followed by a physical exam and a standard set of blood and urine tests. But it was only a concept, as the details of what constituted a routine visit were up to the doctor.
Over the last few decades, multiple studies evaluating the usefulness of routine check-ups have not shown they prevent disease or improve health outcomes. But rather than giving up on these periodic visits, doctors have adopted a different set of goals. The regular medical get-together is now more often called the annual wellness visit, which Medicare and many other health insurance plans cover with no out-of-pocket expense.
The annual wellness visit allows you to focus on what matters most to you about your health and let your doctor know about your priorities — for example, being able to walk every day for many years to come, living independently into your 80s or 90s, or improving your sex life.
A vital component of the wellness visit is creating or refining a personalized approach to maximize your health and quality of life. This translates into specific updates to accomplish these goals.
For instance, your doctor will assess your risk for life-changing events like a heart attack, stroke, and cancer and help define ways to prevent them. This process involves reviewing your cardiovascular disease risk profile, including tobacco and alcohol use, diet, exercise, blood pressure, and blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Also, your doctor will want to ensure you are up to date on appropriate cancer screening based on your age and family history. For men, this include colon cancer screening and possibly PSA blood testing for prostate cancer.
During the visit, your doctor will review your immunization history and recommend any vaccines or boosters you need. He or she will also ask brief questions to help assess signs of depression or anxiety. Often people don’t identify these problems themselves.
To get the most out of your wellness visit, bring a list of the medications, supplements, and herbs you take. Indicate the dose and how often you take them. Also, share information on other medical providers and specialists you see.
Finally, if you haven’t already created an advance care plan, the visit is a chance to gather the necessary paperwork for your care if you can no longer speak for yourself.
— Howard LeWine, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Men's Health Watch
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