The annual physical has long been billed as key to staying healthy. During this appointment, you can get blood work done, develop a better relationship with your doctor, and ideally catch health problems early on, which often makes treatments easier and outcomes better.
But do these checkups need to happen yearly to deliver all those benefits? If you’ve skipped your annual exam this year (or, ahem, even for the past several), your procrastination might not necessarily be a problem, because just how often you should get a physical depends on your age and sex assigned at birth, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Experts In This Article
- Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, MPH, a board-certified family medicine physician and District Medical Director at One Medical in North Carolina
- Samuel Mathis, MD, a board-certified family medicine doctor and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch
- Divesh Goel, MD, board-certified family medicine doctor
Your general health also matters: If you have a chronic condition—like asthma or diabetes, for example—you might need to see your doc more often.
Having routine visits once a year or every other year (as opposed to, say, once a decade), delivers some key benefits, including:
- A better doctor-patient relationship: It’s not always easy to talk about matters related to your health. If you have a years-long or even decades-long relationship with your doctor, talking about your symptoms or trusting their treatment recommendations may feel more natural than if you’ve just met. And the benefits may extend beyond the exam room: A February 2017 PLOS One study found when people had higher trust in their health care professional, they reported healthier behaviors, fewer symptoms, a better quality of life, and greater satisfaction with treatment.
- Early detection: A physical exam has a hands-on component. Your doctor may palpate organs and tap on your body as well as look and listen to it closely, according to the Cleveland Clinic. All of this—as well as the results of blood work—can help reveal potential problems, like a changing mole that could indicate melanoma or an uptick to your cholesterol that could be stressing your heart. And that can help you catch conditions early and start treatment sooner.
- Preventive screenings and shots: During appointments, your doctor may recommend certain vaccinations, such as an annual flu shot or the shingles vaccine. Your doctor may also recommend screenings, for cancer and other conditions, based on your age, family history, and other factors. Of course, you can take care of many of these tasks without a doctor’s visit—you can get your flu vaccine at just about any pharmacy, for instance—but your physical can be a good reminder to tackle these tasks.
To get the benefits from a physical exam, do you need to see your doctor once a year, every other year, or at some other clip? That’s what many of you wanted to know when we polled our readers about their biggest health questions for our Real Talk Rx series. Here’s what our panel of doctors had to say.
So, how often do you really need a physical?
“So many people, including physicians, have different ideas about this. But I am a huge proponent of everybody, no matter your health history, having one physical per year.
If the only time you ever see your doctor is when something’s going on, like when you’re sick or when you have some sort of acute issue, you may never have the opportunity to talk about all of the preventive health screenings and family history and bigger-picture things that influence your health on a day-to-day basis.
Ideally, when you have nothing else going on medically and you’re doing well, you do want to check in with your family physician once a year. And what I do with my patients at that visit is review any age-appropriate cancer screenings and blood tests. We also always review medications, supplements, and other substances.
We update any other elements of the patient’s history, too. If someone in your family recently developed colon cancer that might change the age at which we decide to screen you for colon cancer. So if you don’t take advantage of that annual physical, you won’t have an opportunity to really take charge of your health in the way that you could.”
“If you don’t take advantage of that annual physical, you won’t have an opportunity to really take charge of your health in the way that you could.” —Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD
“You’ll ask a number of physicians this question and you may get a whole slew of answers.
Physical exams do increase the likelihood of a healthier lifestyle and identification of chronic illnesses. We haven’t really found that annual exams save lives, but they do actually improve health. So it’s a really nuanced argument.
[Editor’s note: The research on this topic is as mixed as the opinions of physicians. For example, a January 2019 Cochrane Library review found no link between annual physicals and dying of any cause. But an August 2022 Preventive Medicine review found an association between yearly exams and a 45 percent lower risk of death. More research is needed on the long-term effects of annual physicals.]
The short answer is: You should try to get an exam once every year or every other year. It helps to identify preventive services that are needed to help reduce disease, and to identify diseases before they become an issue.
In general, most annual exams do include yearly blood work, which helps to identify certain diseases such as diabetes and high cholesterol and if there are complications from medications or abnormal findings in the blood that need further evaluation.”
“The simple answer is every year.
Your health is really your store of gold. It’s through your health that you’re going to live this life. Getting your health consultant on board once a year is really good, and with current technology (such as Zoom), it’s simpler to get a consult.”
If you have a health concern or develop symptoms, don’t wait: Schedule a doctor’s visit ASAP.
And even if you’re generally feeling fine and symptom-free, it’s wise to keep routine checkups on your calendar. These appointments are a moment to catch conditions early on, keep current with preventive screenings, and build a trusting relationship with your health care provider.
Routine visits are particularly important if you have a chronic condition. The simplest option is to schedule appointments annually or at least every other year.
Confused about your health? Get answers to more common questions in our Real Talk Rx series.
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- Birkhäuer J, Gaab J, Kossowsky J, Hasler S, Krummenacher P, Werner C, Gerger H. Trust in the health care professional and health outcome: A meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2017 Feb 7;12(2):e0170988. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0170988. PMID: 28170443; PMCID: PMC5295692.
- Krogsbøll LT, Jørgensen KJ, Gøtzsche PC. General health checks in adults for reducing morbidity and mortality from disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Jan 31;1(1):CD009009. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009009.pub3. PMID: 30699470; PMCID: PMC6353639.
- Pathak R, Kang D, Lu Y, Mansuri F, Kasen S, Deng Y, Chen H. Should we abandon annual physical examination? – A meta-analysis of annual physical examination and all-cause mortality in adults based on observational studies. Prev Med. 2022 Aug;161:107130. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2022.107130. Epub 2022 Jul 3. PMID: 35787845.