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Annual Physicals Can Keep You Out of the ER

September 01, 2021

By Daniel Wine, Editorial Contributor

Most of us understand the importance of eating well and exercising regularly, but we often neglect another crucial component of taking care of our health: routine doctor’s visits and annual physical exams.

There are many reasons we put off those visits, including fear of doctors or anxiety about finding something we’d rather not know about. For some people, it’s even a point of pride to brag about never going to the doctor.

“Doctor fatigue” also can be an issue. When you’re seeing specialists for various ailments, you might think: “Why bother with my primary care doctor?”

Recent research shows that more people are postponing checkups, say Dr. Craig Levoy, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg Medical Group Family Medicine, and Dr. Traci Ryan, an emergency medicine specialist at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. This means problems may not be found before they become more serious.

Why Yearly Exams Are Important

When we think of getting an annual exam, we probably remember being weighed, getting our blood pressure checked and having our temperature taken. But physicals include much more than that, especially as we get older.

That’s when age-appropriate screenings for things such as breast, colon and prostate cancer come into play. Your doctor may want to monitor signs of heart disease such as high blood pressure or cholesterol, both of which are common but with subtle symptoms you might not notice.

For those with pre-existing conditions or a family history of diabetes or hypertension, a physical can be the first line of defense against illnesses that can be tracked and treated early.

Catch Problems Early To Avoid the ER

Emergency room doctors and nurses encounter a host of issues daily, but many cases could have been prevented or treated if caught earlier. Topping that list are cardiac disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cancer.

Routine physicals can catch many heart and vascular problems through these simple screening tools:

  • Monitoring smoking, alcohol intake and exercise
  • Measuring blood pressure
  • Doing serial EKGs, which compare current tests to previous EKGs
  • Talking to a patient about family history

Other symptoms – including headaches, fatigue and difficulty breathing – can point to illness but are easy to explain away as exhaustion or stress.

Usually once a patient gets to the ER, what started as a preventable illness has become a full-blown health crisis – one that may be more expensive or difficult to treat than if it had been caught early, Dr. Ryan says.

Annual Bloodwork Holds the Key to Health

Annual bloodwork can reveal health issues and track your body’s changes over time, empowering you and your doctor to make long-term adjustments to your healthcare.

Some of the most common tests:

  • Complete blood count
  • Basic metabolic panel
  • Thyroid panel
  • Lipid panel to check HDL and LDL cholesterol levels
  • Nutrient tests to check for levels of important vitamins, minerals and nutrients
  • C-reactive protein test to identify inflammation from a variety of causes, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and some types of cancer

If you’re at-risk for cancer or other conditions such as cirrhosis or stroke, your bloodwork can include enzyme markers offering your doctor clues about what’s going on behind the scenes.

Taking a Step Toward Better Health

Building a relationship with your primary care physician (PCP) means someone will have an overview of your health. Your PCP is the quarterback of your healthcare team, even if you see specialists for other health concerns.

Waiting too long can make just about any disease more complicated to treat. Catching it early can save you time and money – and can even save your life.

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