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You usually call your doctor when you feel sick or when something’s wrong, so the idea of visiting them when you feel OK might seem counterintuitive. But seeing your primary care provider regularly can benefit you in ways you might not realize.

“You need a trusted primary care provider that you can talk to about your concerns — whether they are mental health needs or changes in your family history or any other health issues that come up,” says family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD.

In addition, the actual physical exam serves as a wellness check as you touch base with your doctor, address any health issues and talk about preventive measures for your future.

Why physicals are so important

Have a nagging health question that doesn’t rise to the level of needing its own appointment? Your physical exam is the perfect time to ask your healthcare provider anything that’s been on your mind.

“It’s a chance to come in and bring up things that are bugging you,” says family medicine physician Daniel Allan, MD, “whether it’s a lingering health issue or something you read that you want your doctor’s opinion on.”

Physical exams provide an opportunity to check in on your overall health, which can also help you forge a relationship with your primary care provider. And that comes in handy for the times when something actually is wrong.

Your primary care provider might be a physician, a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner. They’re trained to spot and manage health issues, including chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease. These are some of the biggest health threats in the U.S. and worldwide — and they often hide in plain sight.

“Catching and treating diseases early leads to better health outcomes,” Dr. Vyas says.

Your provider can also suggest lifestyle changes to keep you healthy or address any nagging concerns you’ve put off, like an achy joint or an odd-looking mole you’ve been meaning to have looked at.

What happens at a physical 

Your yearly checkup with your primary care provider will combine two main elements: talking through your recent health history, changes or concerns, as well as a physical exam. 

Review health history

This is a good chance to brief your provider on your recent health history. Use this as an opportunity to bring up any changes in your family health history or any concerns you have. Your provider might also ask about your exercise, smoking and drinking habits. 

Physical exam

Next, your provider will go through a physical exam. There are a couple of basic things they can check just by observing and examining your body. Often, your body sends signals that you may not even be aware of, so a head-to-toe examination is very important.


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Questions to consider 

This appointment is a chance to open the lines of communication with your provider, so they’re likely to ask some questions designed to get you more comfortable sharing. Expect to touch on some of the following topics: 

Substance use and abuse

It may feel tempting to fudge the truth, but your provider isn’t here to judge. Be honest with them about alcohol and tobacco use, including frequency and any perceived problems. 

Family history

Getting a physical is, in part, about helping you prepare for a healthy future, which includes keeping an eye on your genetic predisposition to medical issues. If your biological mother is dealing with high cholesterol or your sibling was recently diagnosed with cancer, let your provider know. 

General life updates 

To get a feel for your mental health status, your provider may ask questions like, “Are you still working?” and “How has your family been?” These questions will help them gauge your current stage of life and mental state, including whether you have the capacity to make major health changes, if needed.

How to prepare for your appointment 

Your annual physical doesn’t have to be stress-inducing. For the most part, your healthcare provider will lead the way. But it’s also good to take a few simple steps to prepare yourself for your physical to ensure that you get the most out of your appointment. 

Write down questions

It’s all too easy to forget what you want to ask your provider by the time you get into the office. 

Make your other appointments first

If you know you need bloodwork, a mammogram or any other health maintenance-related screenings, consider having them done in advance of your physical. Be sure to bring those results along with you so you and your provider can review them in person. 

Catalog your medical history

Has anything changed since your last physical? If you’ve received new diagnoses or gotten a vaccine, or if had surgery or have any other recent health information to share, this is the time to tell your provider. 

Know your medications

Your provider needs to know what you’re taking, even if it was prescribed by someone else or purchased over the counter, so bring a list of your medications, supplements and vitamins, or simply snap photos of the labels. 

Bring any additional health data

If you keep a food log, use a symptom tracker, chart your blood pressure or keep track of anything else related to your health, bring that information to share with your provider, too.  Your provider may give you guidance for healthy living as it relates to any issues you’re experiencing. And your after-visit summary (typically available both in print and online, if your provider uses an electronic medical record that you can access) will recap what you’ve discussed during the visit, including:

  • Health goals and expectations.
  • Tips and guidance related to your health concerns. 
  • Newly prescribed medications.
  • Necessary vaccines, labs and referrals.
  • When you should return for your next appointment.

“Even if a patient isn’t experiencing current, active health issues, the physical exam gives us an opportunity to determine what might happen in the future,” Dr. Allan states, “so we can prepare for it and address it later.” Your primary care provider will keep track of everything you discussed and will keep a record of it so they have an overall picture of your health — not just right now, but across the years. That means that what you discuss at this appointment can inform your conversations and goals for future appointments — keeping you on a healthy track for the long term.