Do You Really Need A Check-Up? Maybe Not.

We’re always hearing about how important it is to see your doctor for a check-up, but is it? The WSJ Health Blog noticed a study that says “no.”

A lot of healthy Americans are going to the doctor for annual, preventive health visits, but there’s scant evidence that these pilgrimages provide much benefit, concludes a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Annual physicals and gynecological exams account for about 1 in 12 visits by adults to their doctors. And the tab for all those checkups is pretty hefty at nearly $8 billion per year, based on an analysis of nearly 180,000 visits from two national databases. The authors, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, say that this is the first time that the number and costs of these preventive health visits have been crunched.

So can we skip the check-up? The jury is out. It may not be worth what it costs, but it’s certainly not harming anyone’s health. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Most patients believe they should see a doctor every year for a physical in which the doctor will examine them from head to toe and order lots of tests,” said lead author Ateev Mehrotra, a physician and public health expert at Pitt. “There are many doctors who disagree. Physicians need to reach greater consensus on what we should advise patients to do.”

The public is basically clueless about this controversy, and no wonder. Medical professionals harp on the importance of “early detection” and “prevention,” without explaining that major medical organizations do not recommend preventive health exams, or agree on how to define them.

Time to Cross Off Annual Checkups From To-Do Lists? [WSJ Health Blog]
Annual physicals may cost more than they’re worth [Philadelphia Inquirer]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Buran says:

    Yeah, well, when you require a prescription that your doctor will only renew if you get checked once a year, you have to do it.

    Besides, dental checkups do reveal problems like cavities and gum disease (before the pain starts) that could cause a lot of hassle later on if not treated early. GP checkups do the same, but not as often.

  2. ElizabethD says:

    Um, well, I’m glad the docs have reached such a resounding consensus on this question. 8-O

    For younger people it may not be so important to see a doctor regularly, but as we age, seems to me regular exams can make a difference. I, for example, would not have known I was hypothyroid if my doc hadn’t done a blood panel at my annual checkup. But my heart (and other parts) would have known.

  3. AcidReign says:

        I can count the number of checkups I’ve had in the last 35 years on one hand: 1973 (Boy Scout camp required it), 1990 (Company-required), 1997 (Got diagnosed as asthmatic, over a stupid sinus infection. Wanted that crap off my medical record. No evidence of asthma in the checkup.) and 1999 (required to attend a girl scout camp function with my daughter. Only adult to complete the high-ropes course/climb!)

        I’ve got to have doctor-fixable issues, before I start pouring money (or the HMO’s money) down the rat-hole! If’n it ain’t broke…

  4. AcidReign says:

        Oh, yeah. What I said doesn’t count for dental, unless you’re chewing on organic grains for your entire diet. Buran brings up a very good point. I tried to stop going to the dentist, and instead of a cleaning every six months and a good dental report, I now have 3 crowns. Not worth it, especially since my insurance pays for cleanings!

        Yeah, I’m back to every six months on the dentist. I drink too much coffee and booze to ever figure my teeth are in good shape for the long haul!

  5. facted says:

    I think the article was mis-represented a bit…it did not say that you shouldn’t see your doctor at all during the year. It simply said that most tests that your doctor may order and exams that need to be done are generally done without the need for the ONE preventive health care visit that some people choose to schedule every year.

    In other words, if you are up to date with all your bloodwork and various tests that your doctor recommends, then you may not need to see them for the Preventive health visit “just because”.

    In addition, there are plenty of reasons to see your doctor for preventive health services that are well defined by the United States Preventive Services Task Force. Cholesterol screening every 2-3 years, Diabetes screening, Colonoscopy every 10 years at 50, Mammography for Breast Cancer, etc…

    How this effects, consumers, again is a bit beyond me. I really think this website should steer clear of medical issues that the editors don’t always fully understand and try to paraphrase just to make a catchy headline. It’s a bit irresponsible.

  6. Well, being as the last doctor checkup I had was with a pediatrician back in 2000, I think its probably about time for me. Plus, I feel like I’m not taking advantage the $80/month for my health insurance premium if I don’t use it. I think I heard somewhere that for healthy men, every 5 years is good for a checkup/physical, until you get in your 50s when you need more frequent checks on the olde ticker and prostate. **latex glove snap**

  7. FLConsumer says:

    @LastVigilante: For some of the oldsters, the prostate exam might be the most action they get all year.

  8. amoeba says:

    I haven’t been in a Doctor’s office from the past 9 years. I am in my late 20’s and I haven’t been sick since I move to the mid-west. Just minor colds or flus. If I need a prescription for my my hay fever, I go to my friend who is a doctor and she will prescribe me something. I hate check ups, especially when the assistant is the giving me the eye.

  9. synergy says:

    I would avoid the doctor entirely if I could get oral contraceptives without a look under the hood. What a pain in the ******, seriously.

  10. randombob says:

    I stopped going to the doctor regularly after I got out of the military.


    I’ve been a few times since then, but only when I was ill or extremely injured. I see no reason to pay someone to tell me to take two aspirin and take it slow for a few weeks while xyz heals. No freaking duh.

    I think common sense needs to come into play: if you sprained your ankle, give it time to heal then ease back into normal mode. Take weak painkillers if necessary. Rinse & repeat; you get it.

    But yeah, dentist visits? We should all probably be there every month!

  11. It seems to me that a lot of the routine things are either unnecessary for particular individuals or at certain ages, or else could easily be performed by techs/nurses/etc. in a fairly assembly-line manner at lower cost with the doctor only involved if necessary. It also seems that other things that probably SHOULD be done frequently aren’t done — like skin exams for cancers. Unless you see a dermatologist, you’re often out of luck.

    A lot of testing is also done (particularly in school or work-mandated physicals) not for the sake of your health but to protect a third party from liability.

  12. kelmeister says:

    I stopped going to the nasty, evil gynecologist not long after I got married four years ago. Hell, I was married, in a monogamous relationship, why bother? Pap smears suck.

    I went back last January when my husband and I decided to try for kids. I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. I had NO symptoms.

    I’m fine now, but still kick myself for refusing to undergo a 5 minute procedure once a year that really isn’t that bad.

    Some things don’t give off warning signs.

  13. How this effects, consumers, again is a bit beyond me.

    @facted: If it’s a good or service that you pay for then it is a consumer issue and that includes medical services. Medical issues are well within the purview of this web site.

  14. Yeah, well, when you require a prescription that your doctor will only renew if you get checked once a year, you have to do it.

    @Buran: True, true.

    I’ve been putting my annual off. I’m so tired of having to explain to the doctor what tests I need, it’s depressing.

  15. Mary says:

    @kelmeister: Thank you for bringing that up.

    Sure, I don’t like going to the GYN once a year, I hate almost every minute of the procedure.

    But cancer is a lot worse than a doctor visit. I’m more than happy to suffer a little once a year to continue to know I don’t have to worry about cervical cancer.

    That said, I don’t go to a GP anymore. When I have a problem, I figure out what kind of specialist would take care of it and go straight to them, since my insurance doesn’t require referrals. I got tired of sitting at my GPs office for an hour only to see him for ten minutes and have him refer me to a specialist anyway.

  16. karmaghost says:

    I think people’s perceptions on what an annual checkup is could contribute to how necessary people feel they are. For instance, I know checkups as those visits where they hit your knee with a mallet, listen to your chest, and prick your finger for some blood. Why? Because I stopped getting checkups after I stopped having a pediatrician and those are the kind of tests they did. They seem like tests that are designed to find problems with patients that may not know any better (like young children). Now, I “know better,” and can usually tell when I need to go to the doctor without having to have someone hit me with a mallet. Blood work is something, however, that can reveal stuff that you don’t know is wrong and that requires a different kind of checkup than what I’m used to.

  17. lincolnparadox says:

    I’m going to bray with the rest of the herd here and agree that annual doctor visits are important. If you’re a guy, maybe you could get away with once every 2 years. But, if you’re a woman, a well-woman exam every year is essential.

    And please see the dentist at least once a year. Heck, I go twice a year. Take care of yer teeth, people!