Only about one in five Americans gets a check-up every year, according to a paper published in The Archives of Internal Medicine. Many people feel that preventative care is unnecessary and expensive, and visiting the doctor is rarely high on a patient’s priorities. Some doctors have even stopped recommending yearly examinations in favor of more infrequent health checks. With so much uncertainty surrounding preventative medicine, it’s reasonable to ask whether an annual physical is truly necessary. This can help you make an informed decision about your health.

What Happens During an Annual Exam?

Yearly physical examinations occur at a doctor’s office rather than a clinic or hospital. Most people will use their primary care physician, who may be a general practitioner or internal medicine specialist. When making the appointment, you would let the receptionist know that you wanted a standard physical; you would also bring up any specific concerns you might want to be tested for so the doctor can prepare. You’ll receive any special instructions you may need in advance, such as whether to fast in preparation for blood work.

When you arrive at the doctor’s office, you will briefly discuss your medical history and bring up any new symptoms or complaints that you’ve developed since the last examination. The doctor will then perform a physical examination. Blood work and a urinalysis may also be completed to ensure that all systems are working properly. Some of the most common things to check during a physical are blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. These help screen for potential heart problems. The urinalysis tests kidney function and may check for various other medical concerns depending on any symptoms you may have experience throughout the year.

In addition to the general physical examination completed during an appointment, certain gender-specific tests and exams may be completed. Men, for example, will usually receive an inspection of the prostate, testicles and penis. For women, an annual exam might include a pap smear, pelvic exam and breast exam. Women past middle-age receive mammograms. These are generally completed by a gynecologist rather than a general practitioner, and some women’s health clinics offer these services at a low cost.

Depending on the patient’s age and habits, the focus of the exam may shift. As patients age, the examinations become more necessary as medical concerns tend to grow in frequency later in life. After age 50, most adults require regular colon screenings for cancer and other concerns. Additional blood work may become necessary at an advanced age as well. Finally, a yearly examination is a good time to receive any booster shots or vaccinations a patient may require.

The Purpose of Preventative Care

Preventative care is valuable. It provides patients with an opportunity to discuss medical questions and concerns with their doctors, and it casts a wide net that can help identify medical conditions before they become serious. Catching medical issues early on is one of the most important steps in alleviating those concerns.

Additionally, certain services are proven effective at reducing the incidence of certain diseases. For example, a prostate exam is one of the best ways of identifying the early stages of prostate cancer. Receiving regular blood work can also help catch potential health risks before they develop into more serious problems. Some women may also find that it’s difficult to obtain birth control without receiving an examination first.

Despite the value of preventative care, it’s important to realize that an annual examination may not be strictly necessary. For people in generally good health, it may be best to save the money spent on a physical examination and set it aside for a more serious future health crisis. This is especially true of younger patients. It may be possible to obtain certain services, such as a pelvic or prostate exam, from a specialist without receiving a complete annual physical. Depending on your needs, this may be more cost-effective.

Deciding Whether to Receive a Yearly Physical

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are required to pay for preventative care. This means that people with health insurance can generally receive an annual examination and other preventative care with very little out-of-pocket expense. Individuals without insurance, however, may find that the cost of an annual physical is prohibitive. Others may find that their insurance company does not cover every aspect of the physical.

For people in good health, forgoing a physical may be a wise financial decision. Before choosing this, however, it may be wise to receive a physical to establish a baseline of health. Discuss your financial and health-related concerns with your physician. If your health is found to be generally good, you may be able to skip the annual physical in favor of a more infrequent examination.