Annual exams during the pandemic

There was a recent CDC report that stated 40% of Americans have avoided or delayed seeking medical care during the pandemic due to concerns about COVID-19.

However, there should no longer be a fear of getting COVID by coming to the doctor’s office, as most clinics have taken many precautions to limit the risk of exposure during a visit. While early in the pandemic it was suggested to postpone all nonessential medical visits, do not let COVID-19 keep you from your annual physical exam and preventative medicine any longer.

During the past few months, I have seen some of my patients’ health decline from the decision to continue delaying seeking medical care — some declines include increases in anxiety, depression and weight gain.

As a physician, I view an annual exam or general medical checkup as an important time to make sure my patients prioritize their health.

One question I have been asked many times is “do I really need an annual exam?” The answer is yes and here is why.

They help patients establish a relationship with a health care professional

When you have a primary doctor, you can build a long-term relationship with that person. He or she gets to know your medical and family histories and are better able to assess your health when an issue or health concern arises. This can help you avoid visits to the emergency room or an urgent care location where they might not have access to your health record.

Keep up on preventative medicine

Promoting health and well-being resulting in disease prevention is the main goal of preventative medicine. There are different screening recommendations for all ages, but these can include screening exams like making sure a patient is up to date on her mammogram or ensuring a person older than 50 has had a colonoscopy. It could involve labs, such as a cholesterol or anemia screening.

In children it involves developmental screenings and in older individuals it could involve fall prevention counseling or excessive alcohol use screening. Depression screening also is part of a complete annual checkup. Be sure to contact your primary doctor to review your personal and specific preventative medicine needs.

Keep required immunizations up to date

Children certainly have routine vaccinations throughout childhood, but adults also should make sure they are not falling behind. Adults should be getting their pneumonia vaccine at 65, shingles vaccine is recommended for adults older than 50 and tetanus shots should be kept current throughout life.

Flu shots are more important than ever this year and should be a yearly vaccine for all (starting at 6 months of age).

Identify risk factors for common chronic diseases and detecting disease that has no apparent symptoms

For example, I often get asked “what can I do to prevent a heart attack or stroke?” While we cannot control our family history (genetics), we can make sure blood pressure is controlled, watch our sugar (diabetes), avoid smoking and watch what we eat to help control our cholesterol.

At an annual exam we would make sure your blood pressure is in recommended range, check your sugar levels and create a plan if your levels are high, and counsel on options for quitting smoking if needed. We would check a patient’s cholesterol and if high, might recommend medicine, such as a statin.

Often patients have questions about specific diseases and providers can help alleviate stress and educate on concerns, rather than using Dr. Google to get their answers.

Encourage exercise and a healthy diet/lifestyle

It always is important to reinforce the importance of good diet and exercise. Even just a simple weight check can be eye-opening to patients and help motivate them to make changes to their lifestyle. This really applies to all ages.

Many people do not want to listen to their parents or significant other but are willing to have that discussion with their provider to motivate them to make changes resulting in long-term benefit. Your visit should increase awareness of the importance of maintaining your health.

You might save money

Why do we do general maintenance on our houses or cars? One answer is that we want to keep our possessions in tip-top shape make them run better or maintain their value. The same applies to our body.

Doing preventative medicine, trying to catch medical issues early or just doing a check of our health is the best way to prevent a problem, or catch it early, both of which will certainly save money in the long-term. An emergency room visit or stay in the hospital is expensive.

An annual exam should motivate people to take better care of themselves and quit unhealthy habits before they do develop a chronic health condition. If you delayed your annual exam/general medical checkup because of COVID-19, I would strongly encourage you to make that call and set up a visit to your doctor to have that exam.

Offices have taken precautions to help screen COVID patients before they arrive at the office. Doctors and staff will be wearing masks (which we all should be doing anyway) and offices are doing extra cleaning to further reduce risk.