Blog | Monday, August 29, 2016

The yearly physical

“I'm going to the doctor next week for my yearly physical.”

So normal. Of course you are. Everyone should do that.

But the concept of a yearly examination of one's whole body to see if everything checks out fine is a relatively new invention and whether or not it is necessary is a very controversial question.

I just read an article by Abraham Verghese, an internist and champion of physical diagnosis, professor at Stanford University, and inspired writer, about the history of the physical exam. The idea that physicians could know more about a person than he or she could know about him or herself has only gained traction in the last century and comes partly from the invention of gadgets such as the stethoscope, the reflex hammer and the blood pressure cuff which reveal truths only to those of us skilled in their use. Enthusiasm for these has waned a bit as we have become enamored of our ability to see the shadows made by bones and such during an onslaught of electrons (X-rays), or the ability to check the levels of molecules and minerals in the fluids of our bodies, among other technological miracles. This evolution which takes us away from the bedside has also made us less confident in and also less dependent on the information we get by physically examining our patients.

We love what we can measure and correlate, and the physical exam is part of that process. If we can feel an enlarged spleen or liver, that is correlated with certain disease states, but certainly not always. If we can feel lumps in the breasts, testicles or thyroid, there may be something life threatening going on. Or not.

As doctors, we are trained in the nuances of the physical exam. I learned how to examine every orifice and surface, looking for specific abnormalities, and then developed skills over many years in understanding the wide variation in normal people. My physical exam is a conversation with my patient's body which happens simultaneously with a verbal conversation, which in itself is a kind of physical examination. How a person speaks, what interests them, how they follow the conversation are part of the neurological and psychiatric examination. As the physical exam unfolds, my understanding of a patient and my relationship with him or her deepens.

Does a physical exam save lives? I'm not sure. The definitive study will never be done. Only a small subset of what we do at the time of a physical exam has been rigorously studied and found to be of benefit. What a physical exam should entail has never been adequately worked out and there is no consensus. A pelvic and rectal exam, synonymous for some people with a “complete physical” have not been shown to have value in a patient with no symptoms in those areas. These and other parts of a “routine physical” may lead to overdiagnosis: finding something wrong that leads to more testing or treatment that does not improve or lengthen life. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a physical exam, done well and mindfully, is substantially valuable.

If it is valuable, shouldn't we all be getting one, yearly at least? Not necessarily. Plenty of people are healthy and will remain healthy without a doctor doing anything at all to them. “Health checks” were studied by the Cochrane Collaboration and found not to improve morbidity or mortality. There are a few things that would be good to check if you are feeling healthy, just to make sure all is well, though. It would be good to measure blood pressure or screen for HIV or hepatitis C for people at risk. If a patient somehow hasn't heard that it is unhealthy to smoke and be inactive and morbidly obese, ride a motorcycle without a helmet or drink and drive, it may make sense to impart this wisdom.

Medicare does not cover a general physical in the sense that most people think of it. What it does cover is a “Welcome to Medicare Physical” right after becoming insured under Medicare, which involves some screening that is important for determining risks and needs, and a yearly “Wellness Visit” which involves only vital signs and some screening tests along with advice on what is presently being recommended, stuff like mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies. Patients are often put off by this because they don't like scripted interactions with their doctors, and doctors are put off by it because we have usually not memorized the script and some of us are not sure we agree with it.

Is a physical exam a good idea then? And should it be performed yearly on everyone? I, personally, would prefer that I have a chance to have unstructured time to physically examine and interview my patients yearly, in other words to do a physical. I would like them also to get information about what the evidence says about various screening tests and I would like that to be easily accessible in the medical record, but I don't necessarily feel strongly about being the person to offer that information. Perhaps a nurse or a health educator could do that better. I recognize that insurance companies may not cover a complete exam for a person who is healthy. For this reason, a physical exam may need to be scheduled as a prolonged visit to discuss multiple health issues. Taken as a whole, and not because it is based in scientific evidence, I favor the physical exam. I also would completely forgive anyone who preferred to skip it.

Janice Boughton, MD, ACP Member, practiced in the Seattle area for four years and in rural Idaho for 17 years before deciding to take a few years off to see more places, learn more about medicine and increase her knowledge base and perspective by practicing hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling. Disturbed by various aspects of the practice of medicine that make no sense and concerned about the cost of providing health care to every American, she blogs at Why is American Health Care So Expensive?, where this post originally appeared.