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Yes, you need an annual exam

Last Modified: January 11, 2024

Family Medicine

annual checkup

This post was written by Rhonda Sharp, MD, FAAFP, PPG – Family Medicine, associate chief medical officer, Parkview Noble Hospital and Parkview LaGrange Hospital.

Most of us will readily visit the doctor when we aren’t feeling well, but did you know that it’s important to take proactive care of your health, too, with an annual exam? An annual exam is a great chance for you to review any questions you might have about your health with your primary care provider and for them to help you receive preventative care. Let’s dive deeper into what to expect at your annual exam and why they are important tools for your health.

What is an annual exam?

An annual exam is a once-a-year visit to your primary care provider (PCP) where chronic problems can be reviewed and preventative care (to prevent illness before it occurs) can be the focus. Annual exams differ depending on your age and sex. Typically, they start after three years of age (before that children receive well-child exams) and continue throughout your life.

What happens at an annual exam?

Most annual exams will involve a head-to-toe examination and include an evaluation of a healthy lifestyle. Annual exams for children often focus on making sure they are meeting their developmental milestones, growing appropriately and staying up to date on vaccinations. For adult males, the exam will take into account prevention or early detection of cancers, checking blood pressure, and intermittently involve bloodwork to monitor cholesterol and glucose. Adult women will have all the same checks as men plus, generally, the addition of a breast exam and Pap smear as well. If of childbearing age, women will also be counseled on pregnancy prevention and/or preparation for a healthy pregnancy.

Why is it important to get an exam every year?

At your annual exam, your provider will look for any signs and symptoms of chronic illnesses. Often, chronic diseases don’t manifest symptoms in the early stages, so by the time a person shows symptoms the disease has already caused damage to their body. Annual exams help you prevent or catch chronic illnesses early so you can start treatment and limit their consequences.

How does an annual exam with my primary care provider differ from annual specialist visits?

Your PCP can help you with physical exams (including Pap smears) and order bloodwork and mammograms. Some providers can order colonoscopies (when the time comes) and many can also perform them themselves.

You may still need to see a specialist(s) yearly or more frequently depending on your conditions. For example, if you have severe kidney disease, you may need to see a nephrologist one or more times a year in addition to your primary care provider. If you do need more specialized care, you should still see your PCP annually.

Your PCP should receive reports from any specialists you see and can keep track of your health with you. Specialists generally focus on one body system, while your primary care provider will not only look at each of the body systems but also make sure that they are all working together and that treatments do not work against each other. In other words, a more holistic approach to the body.

How should I prepare for my annual exam?

If you are asked to get any tests done (e.g. blood work, annual SmartLung CT scan or mammogram) try to do those before your visit, if possible. This gives your provider the maximum amount of information coming into their conversation with you.

If you have questions or concerns you want to discuss with your provider, write them down so you don’t forget to ask during your exam. Keep in mind if you have multiple chronic problems or more involved acute problems, it may not be feasible to evaluate everything during an annual exam and you may need to be seen more than once per year.

See more about how to get the most out of your annual PCP visit here.

Remember that your mental health is a part of your overall health as well and any concerns should be shared with your provider.

If you need help scheduling an appointment or establishing care with a provider, our Access Center can help. Call any time, at 877-PPG-TODAY or 877-774-8632 for assistance.

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