January 3, 2023

Like many people, you can schedule an annual physical exam with your doctor, known as an “annual physical.” It usually includes your health history, a physical exam, and tests or tests.

The annual physical exam has been popular in American medicine since the 1940s, as a way to help your doctor get to know you and your medical history, run some screening tests, and maybe even catch some problems early.

That’s why you’d think all health experts would support it.

And you would be wrong.

That’s just one of the myths about the annual physical: that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. There are other things you should know as well, such as whether Medicare covers the cost of the test. (Hint: it’s complicated.)

Consider these five myths:

Of course, an annual physical exam is a good idea.

That depends on who you ask. Medical specialists disagree on whether they actually benefit the otherwise healthy. Yet among Americans, the answer is clear: 92% think it’s essential to get an annual checkup from their primary care doctor, according to a 2015 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and 62% of respondents go to see the doctor every year.

But many doctors insist that the annual medical checkup needs its own checkup.

The purpose of an annual exam is to make sure you are healthy.

Not quite. An annual exam does give a quick summary of your health. Still, its goal is to focus on common prevention and detection and to help you establish a doctor-patient relationship in case you do eventually get sick. Even the doctors who editorialized against an annual exam agree that a regular checkup is important in establishing this relationship and that primary care physicians need to make sure their patients receive preventive care.

For example, during an annual checkup, a doctor might discuss a patient’s family medical history to see if he or she is at increased risk for heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, or cancer; auscultate the heart and abdomen; measure blood pressure; and discuss the need for various screening tests, such as a colonoscopy at age 50 or a Pap smear for women, in addition to the required immunizations. These are all topics that would not come up during a normal medical consultation for a specific problem.

When you need them and when you don’t

It is important to have a regular doctor to help ensure that you receive the medical care that is best for your individual needs. But healthy people often don’t need annual physicals, and they may even do more harm than good. These are the reasons:

Annual physical exams usually do not make you healthier.

For your physical exam, your doctor may order tests, such as blood and urine tests, or an electrocardiogram (EKG).

Sometimes these tests are ordered for healthy people who do not have risk factors.

Many studies have been done on the effects of these annual medical exams. In general, they most likely will not help you stay healthy and live longer. And they usually don’t help you avoid hospitalizations or protect you from death from cancer or heart disease.

Who should have an annual physical exam?

Recommendations vary, but if you’re healthy—meaning you don’t have a chronic illness or take prescription drugs—the best solution might be to ask your doctor how often they want to see you. And if you don’t have a regular primary care provider, a “get-acquainted” physical exam would be a good starting point for a doctor-patient relationship in case you do get sick.

Otherwise, an annual exam might be worthwhile based on your age and risk of certain diseases due to your family history. And if you take medication for a chronic illness, even if the disease is under control, regular checkups may be warranted.

The best advice: consult your doctor.