Annual Physical Exam: Unneeded Expense?
New Research Adds to Debate About the Value of a Yearly Physical
Annual Physical Exams: The Ongoing Debate
The discussion about whether an adult needs an annual physical has been
ongoing for nearly a century, Mehrotra tells WebMD. Currently, no major North
American health-related organizations recommend the routine annual exams, he
Still, many patients as well as many doctors believe the annual visits are a
medical necessity. "The vast majority of people think they are being good
patients if they go in to see their doctor every year," says Mehrotra.
"Most doctors actually believe the same thing."
Yet, the value of the exams has not been established in studies, he
"We need to figure it out," Mehrotra says. "Do people need to
come in for a special visit? Can't we do a lot of these services at other
times, without the need for a [special] visit?"
The new study, he says, suggests that crucial preventive services can easily
be received during other visits, and often are.
The study provides some valuable information, says Douglas K. Owens, MD,
senior investigator, VA Palo Alto Healthcare System and professor of medicine
at Stanford University. "The researchers are saying these [annual
physicals] are common, often provide preventive services, but that many
preventive services are provided at other visits."
"It is important to understand what these exams accomplish," he
says, "and that there are other ways to accomplish the same thing that
might be more efficient and cost-effective."
Owens chairs a subcommittee of the American College of Physicians that
develops guidelines about treatment and care but says he is giving his opinion,
not that of the college. The ACP has no official guideline about the
annual physical, he says.
Some advocates of the annual physicals see the yearly exam, Owens points
out, as a good way to build the patient-doctor relationship. Yet that
relationship can be worked on, others say, in any doctor office visit, not just
the traditional annual physical visit.
Take-Home Points on Annual Physicals
What's the message for patients? "The important thing for consumers is,
there are preventive services important to get," Owens says. "If they
are getting them as part of their routine care, that is great. If not, a
periodic health exam may be a good avenue to get them."
"Have a conversation [with your doctor]," Mehrotra suggests. "If
your doctor tells you [that] you don't need to come in for an annual physical
or don't need some of these tests, he's not [just] trying to save money.
Patients should realize there is a lot of controversy about the value of
physicals and they should have a conversation with their doctor about
Patients should also realize, he says, that the preventive services they
absolutely need can be received outside the traditional annual physical