Think You Can Skip That Annual Physical? Think Again

Despite calls from some leading health experts to scrap annual physicals because they are a waste of time and money, a new study finds advantages to routine screenings.

“While it is disappointing that I can’t tell my patients a visit with me or my colleagues will help them live longer, it is good to know there are proven, measurable benefits,” said senior study author, physician Jeffrey Linder. He is chief of the division of general internal medicine and geriatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago.

To come to that conclusion, the Northwestern team reviewed 32 studies conducted between 1963 and 2021.

There is no solid evidence that regular check-ups help adults live longer or prevent major cardiovascular problems like heart attacks or strokes, but they do provide many health benefits — especially for at-risk people — and should continue, the researchers concluded.

At-risk people include: ethnic and racial minorities; those overdue for preventive services who have uncontrolled risk factors; low self-rated health; those who don’t have a single source of trusted care; or those who live in regions with poor access to primary care providers.

Routine check-ups — not necessarily every year — can lead to better detection and treatment of chronic illnesses such as depression and high blood pressure, an increase in vaccinations and screenings for diseases like cancer, and improvement in how patients actually feel after a visit, according to the study published June 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“I was surprised at how many benefits we found when we dug into the data, given the negative messaging around these exams,” said study first author David Liss, research associate professor of medicine (general internal medicine and geriatrics) at Northwestern.

“Especially when it relates to patient-reported outcomes. If you walk away feeling healthy, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Liss added in a Northwestern news release.

“I think a lot of the critics meant to say ‘Don’t do these annual exams for low-risk patients,’ but the message came out to not do these exams at all, which is problematic,” Liss noted.