The Case for Not Getting a Physical Exam

It’s a warm afternoon in Miami, and 35-year-old Emanuel Vega has come to Baptist Health Primary Care for a physical exam. Dr. Mark Caruso shakes his hand with a welcoming smile.

Vega, a strapping man with a thick black beard, is feeling good, but he came to see the doctor today because his wife thought he should. She even made the appointment. It is free to him under his insurance policy with no copay, as most preventive care is under the Affordable Care Act.

Vega is one of more than 44 million Americans who is taking part in a medical ritual — visiting the doctor for an annual physical exam. But there’s little evidence that these visits actually do any good for healthy adults.

Caruso listens to Vega’s heart and lungs, checks his pulse in his ankles and feels around his lymph nodes. He also asks Vega about his exercise and sleeping schedule and orders blood and urine tests. If everything checks out all right, Caruso says, Vega should return for another exam in a year. Vega says he definitely will.

It was a positive experience for both doctor and patient. But many other doctors think the annual physical is unnecessary and can even be harmful.

“I would argue that we should move forward with the elimination of the annual physical,” says Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a primary care physician and professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary