Can 45 million Americans be wrong? Yes they can. That, in fact, is what a recent analysis of 14 medical studies concluded.

Forty-five million is the number of Americans who get a medical exam each year as a precautionary measure. These are people who don’t have a specific medical problem that they’re aware of. Yes, they might have symptoms that they’re concerned about. They’re going to a doctor, though, because they’re convinced that an annual physical is a smart investment of time and money.

Should You Get an Annual Physical Exam?

annual physicalFor many decades, if not longer, the medical community also believed that an annual physical was, in essence, preventative medicine that could save lives. Increasingly, though, doctors believe an annual physical is not needed. They also think it can backfire because it gives patients a false sense of security.

“From a health perspective, the annual physical exam is basically worthless,” wrote Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel in a 2015 opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “Skip Your Annual Physical.” “Researchers have long noted that screening healthy people who have no complaints is a pretty ineffective way to improve people’s health. If you screen thousands of people, maybe you’ll find tens whose exams suggest they might have a disease. And then upon further tests, you’ll find it is really only a few individuals who truly have something. And of those individuals, maybe one or two actually gain a health benefit from an early diagnosis.

Emanuel cited a 2012 analysis of 14 medical studies by the Cochrane Collaboration as proof that annual physicals were worthless. It said physicals did not:

  • Reduce the number of premature deaths.
  • Reduce the number of people who died of cancer.
  • Reduce the number of people who died of heart disease.
  • Reduce medical costs. (Medical exams that detect diseases early when they are more treatable should reduce costs.)

Ninety-two percent of Americans believe annual physicals are important, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll said. Emanuel wrote that most Americans think that they know someone whose life was saved by the early diagnosis of a serious medical condition during a physical.

The evidence is that people are wrong. It is so overwhelming that Harvard Medical School health policy professor Dr. Ateev Mehrotra believes annual physicals should be eliminated. He knows that patients disagree. “When I, as a doctor, say I do not advocate for the annual physical, I feel like I’m attacking moms and apple pie,” Mehrotra told CNN in an article entitled “Your annual physical is a costly ritual, not smart medicine.”

The WebMD article “Annual Physical Examinations” reports that annual physicals include checks of your:

  • Blood pressure.
  • Heart rate.
  • Respiration rate.
  • Body temperature.
  • Appearance.
  • Throat and tonsils.
  • Teeth and gums.
  • Skin and nails.
  • Reflexes.
  • Muscle strength.

What will the above checks find? Not much, the studies say. Yet, they give people peace of mind. They shouldn’t, reports this article entitled “Does your annual physical give you peace of mind? It shouldn’t.” “Your doctor could give you a clean bill of health,” the article reports. “This leads people to be less likely to notice symptoms of disease in the months that follow. Doctors tend to run only the routine tests during annual physicals, which will miss a wide swath of possible ailments.”

Will the recent medical studies change the practice of American doctors? It might not. In fact, the studies only confirmed what many doctors already knew. A panel of doctors appointed by Canada concluded back in 1979 that annual physicals were not effective. Since then, Canada’s doctors have used “a handful of patient-specific periodic screening tests” rather than physicals, this article reports.

Everything really boils down to one simple fact: scheduling an annual physical is a personal decision. Consult with your own physician to discuss a health strategy that you are comfortable with. This will ensure that both you and your doctor will be on the same page when it comes to your visits.

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