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Healthy Living on a Budget

Make the Most of Your Annual Medical Checkup

You feel fine. You rarely get sick. So do you really need an annual physical?

If you’re completely healthy, a “well” visit once a year won’t improve on perfection. But feeling healthy and staying healthy are two different things, says David Meyers, chief medical officer for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. That’s where a regular visit, if not a head-to-toe annual physical, comes in. Nowadays, these appointments are preventive and goal-oriented. You and your doctor will make key decisions to keep you healthy, such as whether you should take a cholesterol-lowering drug or whether you need a colonoscopy.

The focus is on ongoing care, and the actual exam “is the least important thing that happens,” says Jack Der-Sarkissian, a Kaiser Permanente family physician in Hollywood, Calif. Your doctor will still read your vital signs, scan for skin cancer and perform other tests you’d expect. But it’s the resulting game plan that counts most. Der-Sarkissian equates a preventive visit with a meeting with your investment adviser. You should leave your doctor’s office with a goal of where you want to be, healthwise, in 10 years and an action plan to achieve it.

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The good news is that in many cases, the cost of such preventive care is no longer a barrier. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, you won’t owe a co-pay for many preventive health screens and tests. You may have to pay for the office visit, but many private plans offer full coverage for one annual physical. A caveat: If a patient comes in for his physical with, say, chest pain, then the appointment may no longer be considered a well visit and may not be fully covered.

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Of course, some people already see a doctor regularly to monitor a chronic condition. In that case, a special well visit isn’t necessary, says Meyers. And after you’ve established a relationship with your doctor, a face-to-face visit may not be required, either. What’s important is periodically checking in to make sure you’re getting the care you need, he says.

To get the most from your doctor’s visit, follow these steps.

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Before you visit, “do your prep work,” says Elson Haas, a family doctor in San Rafael, Calif. Know your family’s medical history as well as your own. Bring in the actual bottles—not just a list—of any medicines, supplements and vitamins you take regularly. That helps the doctor know the exact dosage you’re taking, says Haas. Finally, prepare three questions you’d like to ask your doctor. About 90% of all patients coming in for a well visit have a health problem they want to discuss, says Der-Sarkissian. “No one comes in with a clean slate.”

Raise your health concerns at the start of your appointment. You only have 20 to 30 minutes per visit, so get to the point. Many patients err by bringing up a worry too late, when there’s little time to discuss it. As the doctor answers, take notes. Patients remember only a fraction of things discussed, says Nitin Damle, president of the American College of Physicians and an internist in Wakefield, R.I. Repeat aloud any instructions your doctor gives you to make sure you understand them.

Don’t be afraid to ask more questions. The more you ask, the more satisfied you’ll be with your visit, says Meyers. If your doctor recommends follow-up tests, treatments or a change in medications, ask about other options and the benefits and side effects of each one.

The key to a successful well visit is the follow-through. Only about 50% of patients comply with their doctor’s advice, says Haas, whether it’s to get a colonoscopy or have another blood test. That defeats the purpose of the check-in. “The steps you take in your 40s and 50s to stay healthy can set you up for a healthier old age,” says Meyers.

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