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Study Questions the Value of Annual Physical Exams

Should We Leave Wellness Alone? continued...

One reason may be that most of the studies included in the review were done in the 1960s and '70s, an era when doctors ordered many tests during wellness exams.

Some of those tests, like electrocardiograms (ECGs or EKGs), have since been shown to have little value for general screening.

In contrast, only some of the studies asked people about smoking. In one study, people were only offered help to cut back if they were smoking more than 15 cigarettes a day.

Quitting smoking, LeFevre points out, has enormous benefits for health.

“It emphasizes the importance of doing what works. Just showing up for a check-up isn’t going to make you live any longer,” he says.

Another reason there may have been no difference between the two groups, researchers say, is that people who were going to the doctor might have been getting good preventive care on the side during those visits.

“So adding systematic health checks did not add any health benefit,” Krogsboll says.

But other experts found the findings solid and even similar to the results of other reviews showing limited benefits for annual physicals.

“This study adds to growing evidence about the limited role of the periodic health examination in healthy adults,” says Timothy J. Wilt, MD, MPH, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Medicine in Minneapolis.

Wilt just finished another review of annual physicals for the Department of Veterans Affairs. His conclusion? They don’t do much for healthy adults.

Despite that, he says many people just like to get regular physicals and feel reassured by checking it off their list.

In those cases, he says, “We and others recommend that patients and providers should focus on areas of demonstrated health benefits and address concerns if patients notice any abnormal signs or symptoms.”

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