As we move closer to the end of the year, it’s a good time to reflect on your health over the past 12 months. And part of this involves checking to see if you’ve had all your yearly doctor appointments.
Staying healthy is just as much about prevention as it is about treatment, and one of the best ways to keep your body in optimal condition is through annual medical visits ― even when you’re feeling great.
Here are five appointments even the healthiest people should make a point of scheduling each year:
Get an annual physical
Most health insurance plans will cover a yearly physical exam, so it’s worth taking the time to squeeze one onto your calendar, said Deborah Blazey-Martin, chief of internal medicine and adult primary care at Tufts Medical Center.
The exam itself will vary based on your age and other factors, but you can expect your doctor to look at things like your blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate and body mass index. He or she can look at whether you need any vaccinations. Your doctor may also order lab tests like a blood count and urinalysis and may spend some time making sure you’re properly managing any chronic illnesses.
“The goal for all screening tests [is] to identify a condition or problem that does not have symptoms now but could cause significant disability or death in the future if not treated,” Blazey-Martin said.
Another reason to see your primary care doctor each year is to build a relationship with them, she added. Even if you’re feeling good now, this is important should you run into health issues in the future.
“Your doctor needs to be a partner in caring for your health, and the best way to have a strong partnership is to ensure that the underlying relationship is a good one,” Blazey-Martin said.
Keep your teeth in top shape by seeing a dentist
It’s a good idea to see a dentist every six months or so to give your dentist a chance to diagnose, prevent and treat oral disease. And people at high risk of cavities or gum disease should go more often than that, said Ana Carolina Botta Martins de Oliveira, associate professor and director of the Division of Operative & Dental Materials within the General Dentistry Department at Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine.
During this checkup, you can expect a tooth cleaning, some oral hygiene education and a comprehensive exam to evaluate your teeth and bones, gums, tongue, cheeks and lips. Your dentist will likely take X-rays, check for cavities and look at things like teeth mobility, plaque accumulation and gum inflammation. Dentists also examine your head, neck and throat to check for signs of swelling, redness, lesions and cancer.
Even if you’re living without mouth pain, you don’t want to skip these visits because many oral diseases can present without symptoms and may affect your overall health beyond your gums and teeth, de Oliveira said. It’s also much easier and less invasive to treat dental conditions when they’re diagnosed early.
See a dermatologist
New York City-based dermatologist Doris Day recommends seeing a dermatologist at least once a year or more frequently if you notice any new or changing moles. There, your dermatologist can guide you and answer questions about moles, sunscreen, rashes, acne and other conditions related to your skin, hair and nails. They are also much better at detecting skin cancers that are not so obvious to the rest of us.
“Fortunately, these are mostly non-melanoma skin cancers which tend to be slow growing and can be removed with in-office procedures without needing chemotherapy or other invasive treatments,” Day said. “But left alone they can be destructive and leave disfiguring scars.”
Skin cancer and other obvious skin conditions aren’t all your doctor will be looking for during a yearly check, either. Dermatologists also look for signs that give them insight into your overall health, like whether you may be prone to diabetes, autoimmune diseases and high blood pressure.
“We are medical doctors that have studied every organ system and when we look at the skin we are trained to see signs of issues in the other parts of the body,” Day said.
Meanwhile, they’re also there to keep you looking and feeling your best.
“Appearance is not superficial,” Day said. “It’s an important reflection of your overall health and well-being. Dermatologists help make sure you’re as healthy as possible and the result is that your skin will also look beautiful at every age.”
Visit a gynaecologist
If you’re a woman, physicians recommend seeing a gynaecologist at least once a year to stay on top of your sexual and reproductive health. According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, these visits are an important time for you to learn about birth control, talk through concerns related to sex or your menstrual period, have preconception counselling and get screenings for cancer, sexually transmitted infections, depression and other health conditions.
A gynaecologist is a doctor many women see most consistently throughout their life and can be an important resource for delivering preventive care services and developing a long-term relationship, said Jimmy Belotte, attending physician in the Division of General Obstetrics and Gynecology at Montefiore Health System in New York.
Regular visits to a gynaecologist, often referred to as well-woman visits, typically start with a comprehensive medical, gynecologic and family history assessment that’s used to inform which parts of a physical exam ― things like breast and pelvic exams ― will be necessary. If you’re of reproductive age, your doctor will probably also talk with you about reproduction. Later in life, gynaecologists will educate you on perimenopause (i.e., the transition into menopause) and menopause, as well as help you through any related health challenges.
Pap smears are another common aspect of these visits, but they may not take place annually as they did in the past. Today, doctors recommend that women with no history of abnormal Pap smears get one every three years between the ages of 21 and 30, and then continue on a once-every-three-years cycle or get a Pap smear combined with an HPV test every five years until the age of 65, Belotte said.
Get a mental health screening
As you’re making all of these other health care appointments, it’s a good idea to factor mental health into the mix, too. Regular mental health screenings can identify signs of treatable illnesses like depression and anxiety.
If you don’t already have a mental health care provider that you see regularly, start by reaching out to your primary care physician or calling your health insurance company to find a provider who can help, said Ken Duckworth, a psychiatrist and medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“It would be a better world if screening was common and routine,” Duckworth said. Right now, mental health screenings are far from common or routine.
“What we’re doing is not working,” Duckworth continued. “I would say if people knew something about their own depression score in a way most people know about their own blood pressure, we would be closer to a more ideal state.”
Many physicians are even able to give a mental health screening during a yearly physical or gynaecological exam. For those without access to a physician, online screening tools like What’s My M3 are also helpful, though shouldn’t replace seeing a clinician, Duckworth said.