Harvard Men's Health Watch

Why you need an annual wellness visit

The once-a-year appointment can reveal vital health information for both you and your doctor.

It’s usually covered by your health insurance, it doesn’t take much time, and it’s a great way to learn about your present and future health.

While men often call it the yearly physical, the annual ritual is better named a wellness visit or preventive health appointment. Whatever you call it, men should still have one every year as it remains an important part of primary care, according to Dr. Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs and primary care physician at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“For many men, this is one of the few extended opportunities they have for an in-depth conversation about their health,” says Dr. Bitton. “The meeting helps both the patient and the doctor address concerns, look at preventive measures, and create health goals and expectations together.”

Measuring value

The traditional annual physical exam that focuses only on routine measurements and tests has drawn criticism in the past. An often-cited JAMA editorial from 2015 suggested they offer little value to people and do not increase life expectancy.

“But the key word here is value,” says Dr. Bitton. “This can mean different things to different people.”

For many men, the annual wellness visit is more than a snapshot of their current health. “Over time, men need the chance to identify and reflect on what is important for their health and what goals they want to accomplish,” says Dr. Bitton. “Without this regular interaction with their doctor, they can end up running around with no clear idea of where they are in terms of their overall health and the best ways to reach their new goals.”

What are the benefits?

The wellness visit usually includes measuring your height, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate, and your doctor may also do a physical exam. (You might be asked to give a urine or blood sample, too.)

“This is information many men don’t regularly get on their own. They don’t know what is ideal or whether there have been significant changes,” says Dr. Bitton.

The visit also is a chance to review healthy and potentially unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as diet, exercise pattern, smoking status, and alcohol use. Beyond these basics, many primary care doctors now screen for common behavioral health problems, such as stress, depression, anxiety, and sleep issues. They also may review other health-related social needs like home safety and transportation.

An annual wellness visit is also an ideal time to discuss the need for specific screening tests, some of which you may not have known about. Examples include an abdominal ultrasound for men ages 65 to 75 who have ever smoked and a chest CT scan for some current and former heavy smokers.

“You can have a conversation with your doctor about the benefits and risks of these tests, which helps to make a shared decision about whether and when you should have them,” says Dr. Bitton. “This way you become better informed and engaged about your ongoing health.”

Questions to ask your doctor

Make the most of your conversation with your doctor. Here are some tips:

  • Consider having a family member or close friend come along, especially if you get nervous at the doctor’s office or have trouble remembering everything the doctor says.
  • Come prepared with your questions written out.
  • Inquire if there are preventive measures you should follow, such as vaccinations, screening tests, dietary changes, and exercise routines.
  • Ask what any prescribed medication or procedure is for, what it will accomplish, the risks and benefits, the potential side effects, and if there are alternatives.
  • Fill out or update your health care proxy forms, and if appropriate, your Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form. This ensures all your health care professionals will know whom to speak with if you cannot, and provide only the treatments you wish to receive.

Personal relationships

An annual visit also helps you build a stronger relationship with your doctor and hopefully allows open communication. Do you feel a connection with your doctor? Does he or she ask in-depth questions, and better yet, encourage you to do so?

“It’s important that your doctor takes time to understand your concerns and answers all of your questions,” says Dr. Bitton. Also, your physician should be someone with whom you are comfortable talking about even the most sensitive subjects.

Most private insurance covers an annual preventive health visit with no co-pay under the Affordable Care Act. If you use Medicare, you may be eligible for the same, known as an Annual Wellness Visit (see “Check out the Medicare Annual Wellness Visit”).

Even if you consider yourself healthy and don’t have any known medical problems, an annual wellness visit is still beneficial.

“You can always learn something new, even if it’s good news about your health,” says Dr. Bitton. “This shows that you are on the right track, and the experience offers motivation for you to continue being proactive. You owe it to your health to devote about an hour or two, once a year, to your long-term well-being.”

Check out the Medicare Annual Wellness Visit

Once you’ve been on Medicare Part B for a year, you’re eligible for the Medicare Annual Wellness Visit (AWV). The AWV provides an opportunity to assess your current health and identify your health goals for the coming year.

While not a head-to-toe physical exam, the results can help your doctor create a personalized health plan to address any current concerns and identify ways of preventing problems in the future.

You fill out a questionnaire called a Health Risk Assessment that outlines your medical and family history and your current conditions and prescriptions.

Typical topics that can be covered include

  • height, weight, and blood pressure
  • a calculation of your body mass index, which can show if you are overweight or underweight
  • a vision test to detect whether you need glasses or a stronger prescription, or if you have signs of an eye disease or eyesight problem
  • a cognitive impairment test
  • a balance test, which helps gauge your risk for falls
  • a hearing assessment to determine whether you may need a hearing aid.

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