It’s easy to put it off, but should you?
The yearly physical exam is important for every family member—and a family physician typically sees children, teens, adults and seniors—helping the doctor to identify a health problem before it becomes serious.
But some people feel awkward or embarrassed with a doctor, causing them to put off an annual exam indefinitely, or to hold back specific questions about their health. Here’s why checkups are important, and how to maximize a visit to the doctor.
Bring a list
The value of an annual checkup is that your vitals (blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol level and weight, just for starters) will be monitored, catching health problems early. Your doctor can keep you up to date on screening tests such as colonoscopies, mammograms, prostate screenings, hearing or vision tests, pap smears and others.
But a checkup is also a time for patients to speak with their doctor privately about pressing health worries.
“Coming in with a list of things you’ve been thinking about can really help,” says Dr. James DeCock, a board certified family physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group. “This way your doctor can make sure to address each point.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website suggests asking yourself these questions just before seeing your doctor:
- Have you noticed any body changes, including lumps or skin changes?
- Are you having pain, dizziness, fatigue, problems with urine or stool, or menstrual cycle changes?
- Have your eating habits changed?
- Are you experiencing depression, anxiety, trauma, distress, or sleeping problems?
“In our office, we give patients a questionnaire to fill out,” says Dr. DeCock, “that includes questions about domestic abuse and drug and alcohol use. It gives people way to think about how to broach the subject if they’re experiencing any of this.”
Think a topic is too private or unpleasant to discuss? Think again. “There are social taboos in talking about urine, stool, blood and sex,” says Dr. DeCock. “But doctors talk about this all day long. That’s what they’re here for, and it doesn’t embarrass us at all.”
Teenagers may not want to talk to a doctor in front of their parents, so some physicians will see them separately from their mothers or fathers. “I will also talk to the parents,” says Dr. DeCock, “to see if there is anything the parents are worried about, so I can hear it from both sides.”
Ashamed about smoking habits or being overweight? Remember that doctors can offer practical advice for changing habits for better health. “We see patients who’ve lost weight, and they are surprised how easy it was—just eating better, cutting out sugar or walking half an hour a day,” says Dr. DeCock.
Don’t forget mental health
If you’ve been depressed, anxious or stressed, tell the doctor about this too, so he or she can steer you to professionals who can provide coping strategies, cognitive therapy and, if appropriate, medication.
Stress related to finances was common during the recent economic downturn, says Dr. DeCock, but he has seen less of it among his patients as the economy improves. “Many patients talked about the stress of losing their jobs, or their extended family members being out of work. Now with the improving economy, I see a better sense of well-being. It’s a huge change; people can breathe again.”
Bring the kids
One advantage of going to a family physician is continuity of the relationship—this doctor will track the health of the whole family over years. Furthermore, he or she can be a kind of one-stop-shop, allowing family members of widely different ages to visit together.
It’s key to bring in young children for regularly scheduled visits, too. In Dr. DeCock’s family practice, he sees patients older than age 2, keeping them up to date on vaccinations, and monitoring their growth.
Use the Internet — with caution
It’s tempting to use the Internet as a health source instead of visiting a doctor—but it’s also easy to get wrong information. “Some people who have a headache will look up brain tumor on the Internet, when 99 percent of the time, it’s not that,” says Dr. DeCock. Websites of medical groups such as The American Cancer Society or government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control are best bets for correct health information.
But Dr. DeCock is not against using certain apps for health guidance. “An app called ePSS from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is a useful, free app that lets you know how often you should get certain screening tests,” he says. He also recommends The Centers for Disease Control app called CDC Vaccine Schedule. “If a family has delayed vaccinations because of misinformation, they can see what they need to do to catch up,” he says.
Oh, and by the way …
A lot of patients wait until the end of a doctor visit to bring up a health problem that’s really been worrying them. “Some patients will say to me at the end of a visit, ‘Oh by the way, I passed out two weeks ago,’” Dr. DeCock says. “If you have chest pain, unexpected shortness of breath, extra fatigue, call your doctor that day. Don’t wait.
“If something is concerning you, bring it up, so we can talk about it and figure