How often do you really need to see your doctor for a checkup?

By: Dr. Victor Marchione | General Health | Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 05:02 AM

doctors, healthMore isn’t always better – and going to see the doctor isn’t any different.

Maybe you feel you need to go and sit it out in the waiting room to see your doctor twice a year, just to make sure you’re okay. But new research shows this might not be necessary.

There are a couple of guidelines and silent rules in place when it comes to seeing a doctor. Below you will get an idea of when you should see your doctor for routine tests and exams, based on your general health.

Of course, if you have any doubts, your best bet is still to make a call or two to be certain of your testing schedule going forward.

How often do you need a general physical?

A 2013 review by the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen and published in the British Medical Journal found that routine medical exams didn’t reduce overall death risk, disease-related deaths, hospitalizations or costs. Not only this, but a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2007 found the health benefits of an annual exam with your doctor might not be worth the cost for healthy adults.

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an online tool for determining when you need to see your doctor. For example, a 40-year-old man should make sure he gets tested for HIV at least once, gets an annual flu shot, and has his blood pressure checked every other year. He should also make sure he gets his cholesterol checked every five years starting as early as age 35.

How often should you have the dreaded colonoscopy?

Here’s an exam that people probably aren’t signing up for if they don’t need it. If you have an average risk profile for colon cancer (according to your doctor) you should begin testing starting at age 50. That’s when you want to get a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a double-contrast barium enema or a virtual colonoscopy every five years. That or you can have a colonoscopy every 10 years. If a positive result comes from the sigmoidoscopy, barium enema or virtual colonoscopy, a colonoscopy should follow.

However, if you have a heightened risk of colon cancer, you may need earlier and more frequent tests. Make sure to talk to your doctor to find out what’s best for your risk profile.

Standard pelvic exam for women

Many women grew up hearing that they should get a Pap test every single year, once they become sexually active or once they turn 18. Today’s recommendations are not quite so strict. The Preventive Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society recommend that women older than 21 should now get a Pap smear once every three years.

Women older than 30 should get a test once every five years if done in combination with an HPV test. Women over 40 don’t need to go more often than that unless they develop unusual symptoms. This more relaxed set of rules does not apply, however, for patients who have a history of cervical cancer, who have HPV or who have a weakened immune system. If you get back even a single abnormal test result, it’s best to speak with your doctor about the plan of action right away.

RELATED READING: 5 old wives’ tales put to the test

Controversy over mammograms

Changes in recommendations for the starting age and frequency of mammograms has been controversial. The current recommendation from the United States Preventive Services Task Force is that healthy women aged 50 to 74 should get a mammogram every two years, and women younger than 50 should speak to their doctor about whether or not their personal breast cancer risk level warrants earlier or more frequent testing.

Prostate exam and prostate screening

Recommendations for prostate cancer screening vary depending on the man, his age and risk factors, too. There is a concern that while a Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test can find prostate cancer early, it may result in life-altering over-treatment for cancers that might have never become life-threatening in the first place. The American Urological Association (AUA) recommends that men speak with their doctors at age 55 about when to begin prostate screening, though the AUA itself doesn’t recommend the test for men younger than 70.

If you looked at this list and noticed you are spending a few too many precious hours in waiting rooms, you might want to make a change. The best way to handle scheduling doctor visits is to make a phone call before taking the time to go to the hospital or office. This way, you can get a real idea on whether or not you need to be seen urgently or any time soon.

I’m all for consulting a professional when it comes to your health – and making your well-being a priority – but you don’t want to undergo any costly exams or procedures if they’re not necessary.

And really, who wants to spend their precious time in clinic waiting rooms?


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