How Much Does Your Annual Physical Actually Matter?

Illustrated by Sydness Hass.
Maybe we were inspired by the American Cancer Society increasing the recommended age at which women should start getting mammograms, but we've been wondering about our other routine doctors' visits lately, too. More specifically: Do we actually need to see our primary care physician every year? This commonly held belief has been thrown into question thanks to an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine. Could the days our yearly weigh-ins be (blessedly) behind us?

Related: Make The Most Of Your Time At The Doctor's Office

The essay's authors, Ateev Mehrotra, MD and Allan Prochazka, MD, argue that physicals are unnecessarily expensive for most patients — and, according to a 2012 meta-analysis from the British Medical Journal, they don't even help reduce patient mortality.

Other doctors have come forward to counter Drs. Mehrotra and Prochaza's claims, including Kristine Arthur, MD, who believes the annual physical is one of few opportunities for effective preventive care, especially with patients who don't pay much attention to their health.
Related: This App Compares Prescriptions For You With Advice From Real Doctors

One matter on which docs can agree is the need for a clearer definition of what the physical entails. Dr. Arthur tells Shape: "There's a misconception that this is a head-to-toe exam that will list all your problems." Drs. Mehrotra and Prochazka point out that some patients are simply weighed and asked about their heart health, while others undergo many in-depth and pricey tests. If more people treated this as a basic doctor-patient check-in, there might be less room for confusion around how often patients need to schedule their visits.

Dr. Arthur explains that, if you're under 40 and in good health, you can push your physical to every three years. But, she adds, if you're ever unsure about something, your best option is always to see your doc.

Click through to Shape for more advice on managing your personal health. (Shape)

Related: Would You Facebook Chat Your Doctor?
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