How Important Is an Annual Physical Exam?

Exam looks at overall health, may include lab tests, screenings

A patient discusses with overall health with his doctor during his annual physical exam.

Exam looks at overall health, may include lab tests, screenings

Annual physical exams are the foundation of preventive care. Doctors strongly recommend them to help manage your health.


“These routine checkups aim to ensure your good health and prevent any serious conditions,” says Alex Crane, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Del Mar.

Annual exams also provide an opportunity to discuss any family history of diseases like heart disease, diabetes or cancer. This allows for proactive steps to mitigate potential risks, including lab tests and screenings.

“They help ensure that issues are addressed as early as possible, allow you to ask any health-related questions and give you a chance to establish a strong relationship with your primary care doctor,” Dr. Crane says.

What is preventive care?

Preventive care emphasizes the prevention and early detection of health issues.

An annual physical exam allows your physician to assess your current health status, review your medical history and identify potential health risks.

During the exam, your doctor will measure vital signs like blood pressure, assess your weight and discuss lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise. These discussions help you set and achieve health goals.

Your doctor may also order a lab test to check for a particular issue or health condition. Blood tests can help check for a wide range of issues. Always be certain what the test measures.

Dr. Crane generally recommends that patients complete labs prior to their appointment to ensure the one-on-one time is as beneficial as possible. 

“We can use this time to discuss lifestyle and dietary changes and/or medications to address any health concerns,” he says.

Your doctor will also let you know what screenings you need to have or consider.

Routine screenings for both men and women address gender-specific health issues, such as prostate cancer, breast cancer and cervical cancer.

Routine screenings for women

Women can significantly benefit from annual physical exams. This is especially true when it comes to early detection of breast and cervical cancer.

Routine mammograms and breast examinations can catch breast cancer at its earliest stages when it is easier to treat. Current guidelines advise women to begin mammograms at age 40. Deciding when to get a mammogram is best done with help from your doctor.

Cervical cancer screenings, including Pap smears and HPV tests, help monitor and reduce the risk of cervical cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends cervical cancer screening with an HPV test starting at age 25 until age 65. If HPV testing alone is not available, a pap test or HPV/Pap co-test are options.

These cancer screenings can identify precancerous lesions. They can prompt more frequent screenings to monitor for any warning signs or unusual growth. 

Additionally, annual exams enable discussions about reproductive health, family planning and menopause. These discussions ensure that women receive comprehensive care tailored to their stage of life.

Routine screenings for men

Finding problems early is also important for men, especially for prostate and colon cancer. These and other cancers are easier to treat when caught early.

Doctors recommend men start having a discussion about prostate screening at certain ages, based on their medical and family history. Men at the highest risk for prostate cancer should have this discussion with their doctor at age 40.

Men who want to be checked should have a blood test called PSA for prostate-specific antigen. They may also get a digital rectal exam as part of the check-up.

Doctors recommend colorectal screenings for men at average risk at age 45. People at average risk include those who do not have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer. Several types of screenings are available. Some only detect potentially cancerous growths while others detect and remove them.

Don’t skip your annual physical 

Preparing for an annual physical may seem like a task or chore. But these visits should not be skipped. Their importance should never be overlooked. Doing so can be risky.

“Skipping annual exams means missing out on essential blood tests, screenings, and health assessments that can catch problems early when they are easier to manage,” Dr. Crane says.

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