For many of us, scheduling an annual checkup with our family doctor is something we have always been encouraged to do. But there’s a growing school of thought that says these yearly visits could actually be doing more harm than good.
Why Annual Check-Ups are a “Thing”
Before getting into the why you shouldn’t visit your doctor regularly (sorry doc…), there are plenty of reasons for booking an appointment when everything’s ay-okay – and it’s not always to diagnose something.
In fact, one of the most compelling reasons for seeing a doctor on a regular basis (and doing blood work) is to give them (and you) a baseline to determine what is normal and what is something that warrants further investigation.
Seeing the same doctor also makes patients feel more comfortable asking questions since they have already established a relationship with them.
Nipping Problems in the Bud
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Regular health exams and tests can help find problems before they start. They also can help find problems early, when your chances for treatment and cure are better. By getting the right health services, screenings, and treatments, you are taking steps that help your chances of living a longer, healthier life.”
Which sounds far more credible than that whole “apple a day keeps the doctor away” folklore we’re all brought up on.
When Immediate Medical Attention Can Prevent Long Term Ailments and the Need for Surgery
There are some ailments people experience that should not wait for annual checkups, nor should they wait to visit the doctor until they really, really, really need to.
Take something pretty run of the mill like carpal tunnel syndrome, for example.
According to the NIH, carpal tunnel release is one of the most common surgical procedures in the United States. But early intervention could save patients time, money and huge amounts of pain.
The experts at the Mayo Clinic say that with early diagnosis, nonsurgical methods may help improve carpal tunnel syndrome and prevent the need for surgery. That’s why they advocate seeing a doctor and starting treatment as soon as possible after symptoms start.
With the risk of very real permanent nerve damage, this simple syndrome is not something to be ignored. However, many people do just that.
“I see a lot of people who say that their numbness was gradually worsening and now their hand is completely numb and has been for a year, said Rozental in an article published by Harvard Health Publishing.” If the nerve is compressed long enough, the muscle atrophies and the nerve damage becomes permanent.”
In this case, an extra visit to the doctor or surgeon can make the difference between a short-lived annoyance and a long-term problem.
How Often Should You See Your Doctor?
There aren’t any hard and fast rules of when you should start visiting your doctor annually (or even biannually). With the general advice being to see a doctor every one to three years until the age of 64 or so.
After that, it’s likely you’ll want to see the doctor more often – usually on a yearly basis. That’s because there are more screenings and tests that older people should undergo on a regular or semi-regular basis that aren’t relevant to younger folk. You can read more about recommended tests from age 65+ here. Of course, everyone has their own particular circumstances, so it’s best to consult your own doctor and see what he/she recommends.
Why Annual Checkups and Testing Could be Dangerous & Misleading
But hold up! Before you make that appointment…
There are noted cases of doctors and the medical establishment being too enthusiastic about diagnosis and screenings, which has led to patients being treated for diseases and conditions they don’t even have.
According to this article, the U.S. spends in the region of $300 million annually on unnecessary tests that are ordered at…. you guessed it… annual physicals.
Inevitably, billions more are spent on (unnecessary) follow-up tests and treatments, which is good news for some, but not patients who might have to foot the bill of these tests themselves. Medicare, for example, won’t cover the cost of an annual physical (though it will cover the cost of an annual wellness visit, the difference between the two is outside the scope of this article!).
An article on CNN health focusing on cancer screenings put it most succinctly, “Enthusiasm for cancer screenings runs high among patients and doctors, both of whom tend to overestimate the benefits but underappreciated risks, medical research shows.”
One of the hottest areas of debate with cancer screening is mammograms, which according to the American Cancer Society, can certainly detect cancers, but they also detect cancers that would never have spread and don’t require treatment. Added to this, there are false-positive results, which, according to the Society, about half of the women getting annual mammograms over a 10-year period will receive – leading to a lot of worry, stress and possibly unnecessary treatment.
This is independent of the whole argument around exposing women to radiation – which we’ll save for another time! But the bottom line is that testing brings up a whole can of worms that may do more harm than good. Ultimately patients must trust their doctors and follow their advice when deciding whether to have a mammogram or not.
When it Comes to Doctor’s Visits, It’s About Finding the Right Balance: Be Responsible & Sensible
Unless you are over 65, visiting your doctor at least once a year might just not be necessary. But, if you know it’s been five or ten years since you last did blood work with your family doctor, it’s probably a good idea to check in and make sure everything is in good order.
In general, it’s important to be aware of the risks involved in overzealous testing, but it’s equally critical to listen to your body and if something doesn’t feel right, go get it checked out!
No matter how frequently you visit your doctor, it’s crucial to find a primary healthcare provider you trust and maintain a good rapport with. This way, you’ll always have someone you are comfortable talking to about your medical needs, and be able to make informed decisions about testing/screenings and your health.