Annual Physical Exam vs Personal Health Assessment

I read a piece in the New York Times this week questioning the usefulness of a yearly checkup with your doctor.  It cited a study from 2012 that said that people who went for an annual exam did not live longer, avoid the hospital more or visit the doctor less.  A similarly themed Op-Ed piece was written by Ezekiel Emanuel earlier this year.  With all due respect to Dr. Emanuel and the New York Times, I will disagree, although with a caveat.
The usefulness of anything depends on how you define it and the what you seek to accomplish.  A checkup that ticks off boxes on a form for an insurance discount – maybe checking blood pressure, weight, blood sugar and cholesterol may identify some people with a health issue.  A fuller exam that looks at when recommended screening exams and vaccines were last done may increase health care usage, but no one argues that a colonoscopy at the right time in one’s life can be life saving and cost-effective.  Medicare covers an annual wellness exam, designed to identify those things that cost medicare money and increase health expenses – dementia, falls and depression.  It also requires a discussion about advanced directives – what a person does or doesn’t want done if they get too sick to make decisions for themselves.  It does not cover lab work, blood pressure checks or other “problems”.  In fact, there is no “laying of hands” at all.
The argument often cited for the yearly exam is relationship building.  If you see your physician when you are well, it is a chance to know what your baseline is, and later you are not trying to establish a relationship in a crisis.  There are pros and cons to this argument – in a mobile society, when you are young, will you have the same doctor when you get ill?  Or do you view your relationship as an insurance policy?  You have the relationship, and hope not to use it.  If there wasn’t precedence for this, wouldn’t we only buy auto insurance after the accident?  Or do you view your physician as a trusted advisor, investing in your health like you might your financial portfolio, with regular review to try to optimize things?

So what do I think of an Annual Exam?

The issue with studies on physical exams are multiple – inconsistent definitions, goals and outcomes make it hard to compare results from various studies.  Besides the studies the NY Times quoted, there are several studies that show recommended screening occurs more in people who come for annual physicals, and that there are health benefits – such as identification of high blood pressure – which has no symptoms and won’t be found until it is too late.
I believe in a yearly checkup.  However, I think the definition needs to change, and it has a very specific goal.  Personal Health Risk Assessment.  All the studies are based on large populations, and when I am with a patient, the most important thing is that person across from me.  We can use population data for a discussion, but what really matters is your risk.  So I like to use the opportunity of an annual exam to go through a person’s history, family history, social history and medical concerns.  Using that information, we can use population studies and decide what studies are appropriate for you!  We can look for the things you are at highest risk for and are most concerned about.  We can decide on a risk reduction plan once we have testing data back.  Can I guarantee you will be healthier for it? No, life does not come with guarantees.  We will be able to say that we identified your risks and did our best to reduce them.  We come away with information and recommendations that are specific to you.  I know your health risks, fears and concerns, and can provide advice that addresses them.
Will you live longer for our time together?  I don’t know.  Can you live better for it – absolutely!
 The path to wellness begins with a proper diagnosis