The “annual checkup” is a time-honored practice, but if you’re young and healthy you may be wondering, “What’s the point?” We’ve done the research to help you answer that question, specifically when it comes to seeing your primary care physician, gynecologist, dentist, and dermatologist. Read on for expert tips to help you determine if you really need to schedule that next visit and when.
Primary care physician (PCP)
Routine check-ups with your PCP involve a comprehensive physical exam — including vital signs, lungs, and heart — and typically also include screening tests to identify risks factors, like high cholesterol, that might lead to disease down the road.
Until the 1980s, influential groups like the American Medical Association and American College of Physicians recommended that these routine visits take place annually. But new research is emerging that shows that for healthy adults — those who do not have chronic illnesses and do not take medications — yearly check-ups do a poor job of reducing illness or risk of death. Even worse, annual exams can lead to unnecessary tests and overtreatment.
As a result, leading professional organizations like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine, and the Society of General Internal Medicine, are calling the annual physical “not necessary” for generally healthy adults. Instead, they recommend an age- and disease-specific approach to routine exams.
With the medical community itself divided on the topic, it’s best to talk to your doctor to figure out the “right” frequency of visits for you. The answer will depend on your current physical condition, medical history, and age. For instance, if your blood pressure is below 120/80 points, every 2 years is sufficient; if it’s higher, you may need to get checked annually.
But, even if you’re young and healthy, the uncontestable benefit of seeing a PCP regularly — whether annually or every few years — is establishing a rapport and building a medical history, both of which are extremely helpful if you do get sick.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), all women should see their practitioner annually for a routine health assessment. Traditionally, the annual visit has included an internal pelvic exam (where a speculum is used to look at the vagina and cervix), which is now up for debate. Based on an extensive review of the research, the American College of Physicians has reported that annual pelvic exams do not benefit healthy, low-risk women, and may even cause discomfort, distress, and unnecessary surgeries. Despite the findings, ACOG still recommends an annual pelvic exam for women 21 years of age or older.
Even if a pelvic exam isn’t conducted, many professionals recommend an annual visit nonetheless. Certified Nurse Midwife Courtney McMillian, CNM, ARNP, says that “there are many benefits to yearly visits. In addition to getting a breast exam, benefits include discussing your sexual health, mental health, contraception options, and any risk factors you should pay attention to. Whether or not you decide to get a pelvic exam during your annual check-in is up to you and your doctor.”
Another important reason for an annual visit is to discuss your cancer screening schedule based on your family history and age. One such screening is the pap smear, which looks for cervical abnormalities and is typically performed every one to five years for healthy women between the ages of 21 and 65. Your practitioner will also help you decide when to start getting annual mammograms, which is usually between the ages of 40 and 50 for low-risk women, and how often. Plus, sexually active females, particularly those with new or multiple partners, should get screened for Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) annually.
Unfortunately, for those that fear the dentist, oral checkups are less negotiable. Dr. Nadine Nicholas, a dentist with two decades of experience, advises that, “as a general rule, adults need to be seen every six months, regardless of age.” However, “oral condition, diet, and how well you maintain your oral health at home can alter the recommended frequency of check-ups.”
So what this mean for you? To limit your dental check-ups to twice a year, brush and floss every day and minimize your consumption of sweets, including natural sugars found in fruit and honey. If you skimp on your hygiene routine, you can develop gum disease, gingivitis, and tooth decay, in which case your dentist might ask you to come back every 2 to 3 months.
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime, so seeing a dermatologist at least once per year for a full body examination is recommended, even if you’re an avid sunblock user. According to UCLA Professor of Dermatology Dr. Ronald Moy, anyone with a family or personal history of skin cancer or numerous moles may need to see their dermatologist more frequently.
Of course, if you see a new spot or a growth that’s changing in shape or size, make an appointment to get it checked out, just in case. To remain vigilant between appointments, ask your dermatologist to teach you how to perform a skin self-exam. Studies show that both skin self-exams and professional evaluations are useful in early detection of skin cancers. If you can’t see your doctor soon, then learn the ABCDE’s of Melanoma here (it’s a useful acronym for the warning signs you need to look for).
Remember: The common thread across well-visits is prevention. Whether you see your doctors annually or every few years, the goal of these visits is to identify health problems early or prevent them before they occur.