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The Importance of Annual Physicals

Photo Courtesy of Briana Bailey

By Briana Bailey, CRMG Primary Care – Wellness/Access Nurse Practitioner
Cheyenne Regional Medical Group (CRMG) Family First Clinic

Primary care providers most often see patients for acute illnesses or routine follow-ups. Because the provider is focused on caring for the patient’s acute or chronic condition(s), there is often not enough time to talk about preventive care.

Take the case of a patient who goes to a provider for a sore throat or cold. The patient likely isn’t feeling well, so it may not be an ideal time for the provider to discuss the patient’s need for a colorectal cancer screening or other preventive screenings. If the provider tries to mention preventive care, the discussion will need to be short. Plus, the patient may feel like the provider didn’t focus enough on their illness or chronic condition and treatment.

Scheduling an annual physical exam allows patients and providers to talk about potential conditions the patient hasn’t developed, with the goal of keeping the patient healthier for longer.

What is an annual physical, and why is it important? 

An annual physical is a once-a-year healthcare visit in which a provider discusses preventive care, including colorectal cancer screening, breast cancer screening and recommended vaccines, as well as other preventive care.

Ultimately, providers want to provide the best and most well-rounded care for their patients. Research shows that the sooner providers find chronic or other health concerns via preventive screenings, the better the long-term outcomes for those conditions and for the patients. 

What is preventive care? 

HealthCare.gov defines preventive care as “routine health care that includes screenings, check-ups, and patient counseling to prevent illnesses, disease, or other health problems.”

Part of preventive care happens when a provider and patient take time to discuss the importance of regular healthcare screenings and decide which screenings are best for that individual patient. Of course, it’s important for the patient to follow up and have the screenings after the provider and patient agree on what’s appropriate.

What screenings may be necessary?

Screenings are part of good healthcare and often begin early in life, during well-child visits. This is when providers screen for appropriate development milestones as well as provide preventive care.

The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recommends which screenings are important for providers to discuss with patients. These recommendations are based on extensive research that evaluates when it’s best for individuals to begin healthcare screenings.

Why is it important to get preventive screenings?

Many people do not have symptoms of a condition until the later stages.

For example, in its early stage, colorectal cancer is usually asymptomatic (with no signs), making it difficult, if not impossible, for patients to know they have it. The only way they may discover they have the condition is if they undergo colorectal screenings (colonoscopies, checking for blood in the stool, DNA stool testing, etc.).

It can be much harder to treat serious conditions when they are discovered in the later stages. That’s because harmful conditions that have progressed may cause severe and sometimes irreversible damage to a person’s body. The worst case is when a condition is discovered so late that no treatment can help.

Another concern is that advanced conditions can increase the treatment costs for patients, healthcare systems and insurance companies — which can drive up the costs of insurance premiums.

It’s also important to know that health screenings need to include regular eye and dental exams. Regular eye exams can detect eye changes associated with having high blood pressure (which is often asymptomatic), diabetes and other serious conditions. If these conditions go untreated, they can cause permanent damage to the eyes, kidneys, heart and cardiovascular system. High blood pressure and diabetes can also put people at higher risk for a stroke and/or a heart attack.

How do providers know which screenings are appropriate? 

Detailed questioning and discussions at annual visits help providers decide what screenings are best for their patients. For example, breast cancer screenings typically start between the ages of 40 and 50. However, if there is a family or personal history of breast cancer, these screenings may need to begin earlier or be done more frequently. 

How can patients or families find out more about preventive care visits? 

Most health insurance covers preventive health services/visits. Individuals can also call their insurance company to be sure preventive screenings are covered.

Medicare covers three different types of annual visits at no cost to beneficiaries: “Welcome to Medicare,” “Initial Medicare Wellness” and subsequent “Medicare Wellness” visits once a year. 

People should call their primary care clinic to schedule an annual physical. If someone does not have a provider, they can go online to find a family practice, primary care or OB/GYN provider and a dentist and eye doctor. Scheduling a yearly visit with these providers is an important step toward achieving and maintaining better health.

What if I think I am a healthy young adult? Do I still need an annual physical? 

Individuals over 2 years old should have an annual physical. (Children younger than 2 years have more than one wellness visit a year.)

What might be discussed or covered during a wellness visit for younger adults:

  • College-age individuals living and/or working in close quarters should consider getting meningococcal vaccines.
  • Teens and young adults from 9 to 26 years old should consider getting an HPV vaccine.

Other screenings that may be discussed during a physical for younger people could include the following. The discussion would also include ways to get help:

  • Tobacco and alcohol use
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Anemia
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Certain diseases

Being able to find and treat conditions early on can help decrease the risk for developing health complications later in life. It’s also important to know that some conditions can be hereditary or that a young person might have a genetic predisposition for developing certain conditions — another reason it’s important for young and active individuals to undergo annual physicals.

For more information about Family First and how to schedule a physical or wellness visit, please call (307) 778-3675 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Briana Bailey, NP, has been a nurse practitioner since 2022. She was a pediatric nurse and worked in health information systems prior to that. Briana believes that the best way to achieve patient success is through shared decision-making and making small, maintainable changes.

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