Thursday, January 27, 2011
What is a "complete" physical?
A reader requests: "Can you do a post on what procedures constitute a thorough physical, in your opinion? I haven't had one in several years and thinking of making an appointment now. The last doctor I went to didn't even listen to my heart or go through the motions with feeling my belly and that stuff. And of the last three doctors I went to, I realized they didn't bring up my immunization records. Is this usually left for the patients to bring up on their own?
Good question. What exactly is a physical? Does it include blood work? What about an EKG? And a cardiac stress test? Is an "executive physical" an orgy of "more is better," previously paid lavishly, really better than a "camp physical?"
Here's the thing: There is no such thing as a "complete physical examination." There are literally hundreds of different maneuvers and procedures that encompass various aspects of physical diagnosis. Performing every last one of these on even a single patient would not only take many hours, it would be a colossal waste of time.
A "physical" is a misnomer. The clinical portion of a medical workup is more correctly termed the "history and physical." Of the two, everyone agrees that the history--information elicited from the patient, sometimes from family members or other medical records--is far more likely to yield useful information. It is the information gleaned from the history that guides the physical.
Knee pain? The history should include mechanism of injury, and physical exam should evaluate for McMurry, Lachman and drawer signs, among other maneuvers. Belly ache? Need to know about associated symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, stool pattern, flatus, and the exam better include careful auscultation (listening) for bowel sounds and palpation (feeling) for masses, fluid, possible shifting dullness, plus eliciting any guarding or rebound, and probably a rectal exam looking for blood. It makes no sense to use a tuning fork for Rinne and Weber tests to evaluate different kinds of hearing loss on someone with heartburn. Likewise, evaluating the debilitating heel pain of plantar fasciitis does not require listening to the lungs. I trust you get the idea.
The question appears to be about the "routine physical" in the absence of any specific medical concern. A more accurate term for this is a "preventive service" visit, for which there are specific guidelines.
First and foremost, I need to make sure that there really are no medical concerns. More than once I've had a patient request a "complete" physical--there was something deliberate about the way they pronounced the word "complete"--when it quickly became clear that there was a concern, usually sexual or rectal, that the patient was reluctant to mention. Obviously, their thought was that I would discover the problem on my own during the examination, and it would be taken care of without them having to say anything. Unfortunately, as I told these patients, it doesn't work that way. There really is no way to bypass the history. I like to tell people that no one ever died of embarrassment, even though they may have wanted to.
Once I'm sure the patient really is healthy, we can proceed.
The mainstay of the preventive visit is still the history, though in this case it takes the form of a risk factor assessment: Any family history of certain conditions (cancer, heart disease), plus lifestyle issues like smoking, diet, and exercise habits. It's been stated that upwards of 90% of modern American ills could be prevented if no one smoked, everyone exercised regularly, avoided excessive sun exposure, and maintained an ideal body weight, a figure with which I do not disagree. Determination of the patient's immunization status is also part and parcel of the history portion of a preventive visit.
When you stop to think about it, the whole idea of prevention is to find things that may be wrong with the patient that they can't feel (i.e. before they have symptoms), that can produce symptoms eventually, and that we can do something about to prevent that from happening. When you look at it like that, the list of possible entities is surprisingly short:
--High blood pressure
--Chronic kidney failure
--Certain cancers and pre-cancers
Although I'm sure people will think they can add to that list, the vast majority of other conditions really do present with symptoms of some kind, however subtle.
Next, as with the "sick" visit, we perform a targeted physical examination.
I would have to say that measurement of the blood pressure is perhaps the single most important component of a preventive physical. High blood pressure is not only asymptomatic, but guides me to examine the eyegrounds (the back of the eye, the retina) with my ophthalmoscope, looking for early evidence of damage from blood pressure. I make sure to listen to the carotid arteries in the neck. I've found bruits (a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh sound) indicative of dangerous narrowing that can presage a stroke that are completely asymptomatic! I make it a point to listen to the heart regularly. I've detected murmurs, abnormal sounds between the lub and the dub, indicating damaged heart valves, and sent people to surgery before any damage occurred to the heart muscle itself. Bear in mind, though, that a targeted cardiovascular exam may not be indicated in everyone. Beyond that, everyone (including me) has their own set of standard maneuvers that constitute looking someone over briefly but thoroughly.
Other preventive care procedures such as Pap tests, clinical breast examinations, mammographies, colonoscopies, PSAs and so on are recommended at specific intervals for specific ages of patients of appropriate genders. USPSTF doesn't appear to have any specific guidelines on "routine" blood testing, except for specific conditions (annual fasting blood sugars looking for diabetes in patients with a positive family history, for instance). Screening fasting cholesterol testing once every five years is probably appropriate, again, guided by family history and other factors discovered in the personal history.
So the answer to the question, "What constitutes a thorough physical?" is the same as the answer to a surprising number of question I am asked: It depends.
This post by Lucy Hornstein, MD, appeared at Get Better Health, a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.
Labels: BMI, breast cancer, cancer, cardiology, cardiovascular risk, cholesterol, colonoscopy, guest post, guidelines, heart, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, primary care, PSA, smoking cessation, vaccination
Contact ACP Internist
Send comments to ACP Internist staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- QD: News Every Day--Shiver yourself thin?
- Why 'the end of internal medicine as we know it' m...
- QD: News Every Day--State of health care in the Un...
- QD: News Every Day--America's longevity gap blamed...
- Beyond a spoonful of sugar
- QD: News Every Day--'Death panels' a shorthand way...
- Should doctors be banned from asking if a patient ...
- QD: News Every Day--Vaccines' link to autism like ...
- What's new in hypertension with JNC 8 on the horiz...
- Mississippi learning
Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.
And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.
Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.
Controversies in Hospital
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).
db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.
Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.
Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.
Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.
David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.
Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.
Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).
David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.
Reflections of a Grady
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.
The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.
Technology in (Medical)
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.
Peter A. Lipson,
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.
Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.
World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.
Other blogs of note:
American Journal of
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.
Michael Benjamin, MD, ACP member, doesn't accept industry money so he can create an independent, clinician-reviewed space on the Internet for physicians to report and comment on the medical news of the day.
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.