Stop Going to the Doctor for 'Checkups'

Annual physicals are 'worthless,' writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 9, 2015 9:16 AM CST
Stop Going to the Doctor for 'Checkups'
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It's a new year, and perhaps you're thinking about calling your doctor to make an appointment for your annual physical. Don't, writes oncologist Ezekiel J. Emanuel in the New York Times. "From a health perspective, the annual physical exam is basically worthless," he says. Studies have found that routine doctor visits—those that are not related to a specific complaint—don't reduce mortality overall (or from causes like cancer and heart disease), and many experts don't recommend "checkup"-type exams. As Emanuel explains, it's rare for doctors to actually pick up on a previously unknown symptom during a routine physical. And even if they do, out of thousands of people going in for annuals, there are "maybe one or two [who] actually gain a health benefit from an early diagnosis," he writes.

As for the rest, early detection won't make any difference: Regardless of when it's caught, a person with thyroid cancer likely won't die anyway, while a person with esophageal or pancreatic cancer likely won't see his or her life extended. And in some cases, healthy people "are actually hurt by physicals," because they end up with complications or pain from unnecessary further screening. Beyond all this, of course, there's the fact that "the checkups consume billions, although no one is sure exactly how many billions because of the challenge of measuring the additional screenings and follow-up tests." So keep eating healthily and exercising, and get preventive care like flu shots and colonoscopies, but to reduce health-care costs and free up doctors for patients who really need them, skip the annual physical. Click for Emanuel's full column. (Or read about why he doesn't want to live past 75.)

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