Yearly medical checkups used to be commonplace. These days, however, people tend to undergo them more for specific purposes than just as a matter of course. Medical experts actually take that as something of a positive sign.
The thinking goes that as diet and exercise become more a part of everyday life, people are living longer, healthier lives and the impetus to check in with the doctor every year is no longer as pressing as it was even 50 years ago.
At the same time, there are probably more specific reasons for having a physical today than there used to be, including work and travel reasons. We’re here to put the medical check-up under the microscope and present some useful info and tips.
What’s the Importance of a Medical Check-Up?
The importance of medical check-up has to do with catching small medical issues before they grow into major problems that may overwhelm you.
“I doubt that anyone will say we don’t need to have physical exams.” – John Ioannidis, MD
What Tests are Included in a Medical Check-Up?
Tests included in a medical check-up will vary depending on your age, gender, and overall physical condition. If you are older and overweight for example, the range of tests will be different than if you are young and in peak condition. That said, these are the kind of tests that are routinely done during a physical examination:
- A blood pressure test – High blood pressure is a silent killer. The sooner it is diagnosed, the better. A simple blood pressure test takes about a minute.
- Testing your heart rate – Elevated heart rate could indicate any number of underlying issues. This is a fairly standard test done during most medical check-ups.
- Testing your respiratory rate – The doctor will test your breathing and listen to your chest to see if there are any abnormalities.
- An eye examination – As is the case with high blood pressure, the sooner you catch problems like cataracts, the better.
- Testing your balance – The doctor may ask you to perform various physical acts like standing on one foot to test your balance. Balance problems could indicate other underlying issues.
- A hearing test – Often, hearing loss happens so gradually people aren’t aware of it. A hearing test can detect problems and allow the doctor to formulate a plan of action to address them.
- Testing your reflexes – Problems with the nervous system are often revealed by doing a few simple reflex tests.
A battery of more involved tests may also be run on both men and women. These include:
- Testing for colon cancer – This type of test typically begins at age 50.
- Testing for lung cancer – A CT scan of the lungs is often recommended for those who smoke or who have smoked for any period of time in their past.
- A blood glucose test – Many people are not aware of the warning signs of diabetes. If you are overweight or eat a less than ideal diet, the doctor may test your blood glucose levels.
- A test for hepatitis C – Older individuals are often tested for hepatitis C.
The following tests may be recommended for women:
- A mammogram – It’s recommended that women considered at risk for breast cancer have a mammogram every year. Those considered to have a low or average risk should have one every 2 years.
- A breast exam – Aside from a mammogram, a breast exam should be performed during the physical to check for abnormalities, including lumps.
- A pap smear – It is recommended that women begin having regular pap smears for cervical cancer at the age of 21. Once every 3 years is considered adequate for most. After the age of 65, pap smears are no longer considered crucial.
- Testing for osteoporosis – Older women may want to be tested for osteoporosis to ensure they’re not losing abnormal amounts of bone density.
It will often be recommended that men undergo the following tests during a medical check-up.
- A cholesterol test – It is recommended that men over the age of 35 begin having a regular cholesterol test. Particularly if there is a family history of heart disease or diabetes.
- A prostate test – The standard rectal exam to test for an enlarged prostate is no longer considered a must during most exams. Though there may still be instances when the doctor recommends it. Such as if there is a family history of prostate cancer.
- A testicular exam – It is sometimes recommended that men have their testicles examined to look for abnormalities, including lumps or unusual tenderness.
Other tests may be recommended if there is a specific cause for concern.
“Today, medical technologies are often a doctor’s first diagnostic tool.” – Abraham Verghese, MD
How Often Should You Visit a Doctor for a Medical Check-Up?
As we mentioned at the outset, the notion of the annual physical has fallen out of favor in recent years. While there is certainly nothing wrong with going in for an annual checkup, most health professionals no longer think it necessary.
Instead, they suggest that people under 40 have a thorough medical check-up every 5 years. And that people over the age of 40 undergo a physical once every 3 years.
Be aware however that the seeming reluctance on behalf of the medical community to perform physicals on people is actually driven more by insurance company considerations (i.e., they don’t want to pay for annual physicals) then it’s through medical considerations. So if you would feel better having a yearly physical by all means, you should have one.
How Much Does a Medical Check-Up Cost?
It’s impossible to put a price tag on the benefits of good health and early detection of health problems. Nonetheless, it can be valuable to have some idea what to expect by way of the cost when it comes to medical check-ups. Especially if you’ll be paying for it out of your own pocket. So…
- If your insurance refuses to pay for a physical or you are uninsured, you can expect to pay anywhere from $100 – $250 for a standard physical exam with your primary care physician.
- Going to a walk-in clinic is often a more cost-effective option as many will provide a reasonably thorough medical exam for about $100. If you need a physical for a job, make sure they’ll accept a clinic-style physical before you pay for one. Some companies don’t consider them comprehensive enough.
- Be aware as well that what really sends the medical check-up bill through the roof are laboratory tests. So if you need to have one or more of those you can expect the cost to be significantly higher.
- If you have decent insurance however, it may well cover the cost of any lab work. So talk to someone at the insurance company before scheduling any tests.
Where to Go For a Medical Check-Up?
The office of your primary care physician
If you have a primary care physician, it is always preferable that you go to him or her for your medical check-up. After all, nobody is more familiar with your medical history then they are. On top of that, you already have a certain comfort level with them.
Or else they wouldn’t be your primary care physician. They’ll be able to tell when something is cause for concern or when it’s just some lingering after-effect from a previously diagnosed and treated ailment.
Any health clinic open to the public
Some clinics will be okay with you walking in and asking for a check-up, others will require you to make an appointment.
In either case, the neighborhood health clinic has proven a popular choice in recent years for medical check-ups related to visas, job applications, insurance claims or just because you want to know how you’re doing. You might want to shop around a bit first, however, since different clinics can charge wildly different amounts for similar procedures.
Some folks are under the impression that because a hospital concerns itself with all things medical that they can just show up at a hospital and request a physical.
This is almost never the case. Yes, it’s true that hospitals conduct rudimentary medical check-ups on everyone they encounter in the emergency room. However, they assume you’re there because of some pressing medical emergency, not simply to undergo the bare bones type of physical they perform.
Benefits and Importance of a Medical Check-Up
Having a medical check-up provides a range of benefits:
- You can establish a relationship with a doctor – This can be particularly valuable if you’ve just moved to a new town.
- They’ll save you money – It’s always cheaper to prevent health problems than to deal with them after they are fully developed.
- They allow you to create baseline information – This baseline information about your health can be useful to your doctor in the future.
- They can provide motivation – Many people need reasons to change their diet or engage in physical activity. The results of a physical can provide that.
- They can keep immunizations up to date – Some immunizations require boosters years after you have the original. Your doctor will often provide these boosters during a medical check-up.
- You can set a good example – It may not always seem like it, but kids pay attention to what their parents do. If mom and dad set good examples, the kids are likely to take those examples to heart. So set a good example for the kids and get a regular medical check-up.
- They’ll help extend your life – This is the real reason people have physical exams. They want to know if anything is wrong so they can get the treatment they need to get past it and live a long healthy life. Physicals exams are your first line of defense against myriad health problems.