Who Needs a Physical?

Last week I saw an elderly woman whose daughter brought her in with a long list of symptoms, including palpitations, chest pain, fatigue, forgetfulness, dizziness, headaches, chronic leg swelling, abdominal pain and irregular bowels.

“She needs a complete physical,” the daughter said.

I disagreed. In my opinion, she needed a thorough evaluation of her symptoms and concerns, starting with her most urgent symptom of chest pain. She was simply not well enough for a routine physical.

This is no joke: A routine exam is essentially for healthy people. Patients with alarming symptoms need to have them evaluated promptly in a focused way, and not wait until their next routine physical, where the urgent issues would have to be dealt with in conjunction with immunization advice and all kinds of health maintenance issues.

Not everybody believes in the annual physical. Medicare doesn’t cover it, and most of the things doctors do during such an exam are of little or no proven benefit, as the proponents of evidence-based medicine remind us.

Those routine tests that are supported by the evidence are not usually recommended on an annual basis, but rather at different intervals for different age groups.

As far as the old-fashioned head-to-toe physical, there is simply no scientific support for it if you listen to the U.S. Public Health Task Force or the big insurance companies.

I have always shied away from the term “complete physical”, because there really is no such thing in clinical practice. There are always more things you could do, but don’t – we all have to budget our time as well as all other resources in our profession.

For many years now I have preferred the term “Annual Review”, because, in preventive medicine as in clinical diagnosis, you can usually accomplish more by simply talking to your patient than by delving into examinations and procedures right away.

In my practice, I see the Annual Review as my opportunity to ask patients things that they may not have thought of bringing to my attention. It is my opportunity, just like in the “well child visit,” to offer what we call anticipatory guidance – addressing things that might become problems in the future, and how to avoid that happening.

I am more likely to find a patient with angina by asking him how he feels when he splits and stacks firewood than by auscultating his heart or doing an annual resting EKG in my office. I also think I am more likely to spot a depressed patient if I have a chance to ask a few open-ended questions about how things are going than if I only rely on questionnaires.

There is no doubt that certain parts of the routine physical exam are valuable. I tend to talk my way through the exam, asking questions while I touch the patient, explaining what I am looking for, and encouraging the patient to do their own breast exam, lymph node or testicular exam. 

And, getting back to auscultating the heart, it is necessary to do. A physical without listening to the heart is like a dinner without a main course. People expect it, and you never know what you’ll hear if you stop and listen for half a minute or so.

I didn’t need an EKG to diagnose my elderly chest pain patient with atrial fibrillation.

1 Response to “Who Needs a Physical?”


  1. 1 DocJock November 11, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    I am a GP in Scotland, but previously practised for 14 years in Canada. The concept of the annual physical is simply unknown here in the UK, and I don’t think patients suffer because of that. When I practised in Canada, I did pick up the occasional previously undiagnosed problem, such as a breast lump or an enlarged prostate. But the most valuable part of the appointment was simply getting to know my patient better.
    In the UK, some companies encourage their employees to have a physical through their private health insurer. The main effect of this is that patients then turn up to see me with a print out with a mildly elevated lipid level (in someone with no other risk factors), or an slightly abnormal exercise ECG in an asymptomatic patient. This results in further investigation, almost always resulting in nothing significant being found.


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