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Here's Why You Should Go To The Doctor Every Year, According To A Doctor

As a young person and a doctor, I can tell you that getting an annual checkup really is worth the time (and the probably zero dollars) it will cost you.

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Hello, adults! And welcome to The Holiday Season, during which all your relatives will feel very free to question your life choices and adult competence. How to prove that you actually do have it together? A great place to start would be with a visit to your primary care doctor.

Sounds lame, but I can tell you — as a young person AND a doctor — that it's actually a really good idea. Here why it's worth your time to see your primary care doctor (or find one, if you don't have one) for an annual physical before the end of the year (a.k.a. your annual flexible spending deadline).


1. Your doctor wants to help you, not judge you.

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Believe me, your doctor doesn't expect you to have perfect habits and be in perfect health. You might not exercise. You might drink too much. You might eat too much fast food. That's OK, and it's best to be honest about it. Because a good primary care doctor (a.k.a. internist) should spend their time figuring out why you have those habits.

2. They can actually help you change those unhealthy habits you've been meaning to fix.

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If you smoke, now is the chance to talk about why you're smoking, why you enjoy it, and why you haven't been able to quit. Maybe it's because you have been experiencing anxiety. If so, we should try and treat that.

If you haven't seen the inside of a gym since high school PE, let's talk about why. Maybe it's because running makes you short of breath, and we find out you have exercise-induced asthma. Your doctor is there to help you problem-solve and set reasonable goals. If all of our patients were already in perfect health, we wouldn't have much to do other than congratulate them!

3. You can’t always tell when you have health issues that need to be addressed.

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Let's say you take great care of your body. You a eat balanced diet, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and wear sunscreen everyday — even in the winter! You still need to be screened with a physical exam.

Not every medical problem will make you "feel sick," especially if you're young and have a high tolerance for discomfort (think four roommates and one bathroom). A leaky heart valve, a growing ovarian cyst, and a painless enlarging thyroid nodule are examples of things that can be ticking time bombs and often go un-noticed unless you go for an annual physical.

4. Your doctor knows what to look for, while you...probably don't.

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If you have a brother who had high cholesterol diagnosed in his 20s, you might need to be screened in your teens, even if you're thin and in good shape. If you have a father who had a malignant polyp removed from his colon at age 30, you might need to be screened in your 20s. And when was the last time someone checked you for skin cancer? Deciding what to screen you for, when, and how often, is vital to your maintaining your health, and not something you can just Google.


5. It’s ALWAYS better to catch something early.

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When you see your doctor at your annual visit, the doctor does what's called a "review of systems," asking a long list of questions meant to catch things you didn't otherwise bring up. For example: Any rectal bleeding, change in your vision, penile discharge, new chest pressure, new nausea, decrease in your ability to walk or climb stairs?

What you might have thought was nothing at all could be the beginning of a serious disease, and it's better to catch it now then wait until there are full-blown symptoms. That slight discomfort with urination might be an STD. That numbness in your leg might be sciatica. That weird pain you felt that never came back might be nothing at all...but this is your chance to make sure.

6. You might find out something important for another family member.

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Your internist should ask you every year about updates in your family's medical history, because what might not seem important to you could be very important for another family member. For example, I once had a young patient tell me her mother had new breast cancer, and when we looked at the family history she had given me the year before, I noticed her maternal grandfather had prostate cancer at a young age.

I suggested that the family be been screened for mutations in the BRCA gene, which increases risk for a number of cancers including breast, ovarian, and prostate. The appropriate family members then had genetic testing and cancer screening. It turned out that my patient's aunt had early stage ovarian cancer. But they caught it early, and she was fine.

7. If a doctor knows you when you’re healthy, then she’ll be able to tell when you’re sick.

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It's always hard to meet a patient for the first time when they are sick. I always wonder, is this their normal? Are they always low-energy, or is this a big change? Did they have that heart murmur before, or is it new? Was that mole there a year ago?

Also, detailed past medical history, surgical history, and family history are tough to delve into with limited time, and in the reality of today's healthcare system, time is always limited. If that information all got sorted out during the annual physical, then we can get straight to the point and use your sick visit appropriately.

8. It’s smart to invest in your health while you’re healthy.

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The same way it's easier to make and get to a doctor's appointment when you're healthy than it is when you're in the middle of a miserable flu, it's worth it to establish a relationship with your doctor while you're young, before everything starts to go the pieces.

Your annual physical is your doctor-patient bonding time. As you get older, more health problems may start to pop up (did you know 50% of men older than 40 have erectile dysfunction?). And you'll feel much more comfortable discussing new medical problems with someone you trust, who has spent time getting to know you.


9. Unlike your friends, we never get bored of listening to your problems.

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I find a lot of times patients think you can only go to the doctor for something major, like a broken bone or a heart attack. But, for example, just because you aren't completely debilitated by your back pain doesn't mean you have to live with it. You can talk to your primary care doctor!

You're not being a pain in the ass. It's our job to listen. I can't promise that we always have solutions, but if there's something that's bothering you, we are always open to trying to troubleshoot with you.

10. You need vaccines. Seriously.

Jess Probus / BuzzFeed

Vaccines aren't something you need to "believe" in. They aren't unicorns. You know how you wear a seatbelt, even though you probably haven't been in a bad car accident? Vaccines work the same way. They're preventative — and not just for you, but also for everyone around you.

If you get the flu and you ride the subway next to a pregnant woman, a baby, or someone elderly, you could kill them. So go get a flu shot, this year and every year. You should also know that the Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) doesn't last forever; you need a booster every 10 years. There is currently a pertussis outbreak going on in Brooklyn among an unvaccinated community. In case you wanted to let your immune system take care of pertussis on its own, you should expect to cough so hard you vomit for a couple of weeks.

11. And remember: Your annual physical exam is probably free (or almost free!).

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Most insurance plans cover an annual physical. Also, some employers actually give their employees cash bonuses, discounts on gym membership, and other benefits when they prove that they take good care of themselves.

And you can take good care of yourself by visiting your primary care doctor once a year! At the very least, it's one less thing to be nagged about by your family during the holidays.

Dr. Joanna Loewenstein is an internist and instructor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. You can follow her on twitter at @doctorjoannalo.