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Women's Health

Do You Still Need an Annual Doctor’s Visit?

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Tips to Strike a Balance

That’s not to say you should ignore preventive care altogether. For instance, it's a wise idea to get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked. (Read on to find out how often.)

Your doctor can also help you work on healthy habits, like quitting smoking if you need to --  and that improves overall health, says Michael LeFevre, MD, MSPH. He's the vice chair of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri, and the chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

So how, then, should health care consumers reconcile preventive services known to save lives against data that suggests an annual physical doesn’t matter much?

“There are better ways to deliver preventive services then bringing people in once a year,” LeFevre says.

“Better” means relying on the best and most current studies  to figure out when testing makes the most sense. The task force, an independent panel of experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine, recommends age- or disease-specific screening tests instead of the once-a-year approach.

For example, doctors first began recommending women be screened annually for cervical cancer about 50 years ago. This promoted the need for an annual doctor’s office visit. But now, women ages 21 to 65 need only have the tests every 3 years, LeFevre says.

“These are the things that the science tells us help people live longer and live better,” he says. “What that requires is going to vary, based on individual circumstances, personal history, and age. I really do think it has to be individualized as opposed to saying everybody should get an annual physical.”

Tests You Shouldn't Skip

Among the screening tests recommended by LeFevre and the USPSTF:

Blood Pressure: Every 2 years for adults with an ideal blood pressure below 120/80 points. Annually if your blood pressure is above 120/80.

Breast Cancer: Mammogram every 2 years for women ages 50 to 74.  Women at higher risk should talk to their doctor about getting screened before age 50.

Cervical Cancer: Screening and pap smear every 3 years for women ages 21 to 65. Human papillomavirus (HPV) testing every 5 years after age 30.

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