Stay healthy with an annual wellness visit
Published on Wednesday, December 1, 2021
By: Karen Bascom
Dr. Savannah Duckworth once had a patient come in to the clinic with a significant tan. He was feeling healthy, enjoying an active life and spent lots of time on the golf course.
However, Duckworth suggested the patient see a dermatologist to check for skin cancer, a risk associated with excess fun in the sun. Later, he received a diagnosis: melanoma.
“All it took was a discussion of screening, and it ended up being so significant for this patient,” said Duckworth, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
The patient’s skin cancer might not have been caught as early as it was if not for a wellness visit.
“Some people only visit physicians when they are sick or unhealthy, but a key to overall health is prevention and that's what we can do if people come annually for a physical or a wellness visit,” Duckworth said.
Dr. Michelle Horn, division chief for general internal medicine, likens the yearly wellness visit to the approaching color of a traffic light: a time to look and listen for signs of danger ahead.
“We can pick up on warning signs –the yellow lights -- and prevent them from progressing to red,” said Horn, associate professor of medicine. “As a physician, you can gain a lot of information about a patient just by observing them.”
In a wellness visit, doctors take note of surface-level signs of health: Is the person alert? Are they having difficulty moving or breathing? Has their physical appearance changed significantly since their last visit?
Horn said every wellness visit should include vital sign checks such as pulse, temperature, blood pressure and weight. The last two are especially important, as uncontrolled hypertension and obesity are leading risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.
Horn said the annual check-up is an ideal time to discuss and receive vaccinations. Adults over 50 should get a shingles vaccine and those over 65 one that protects against pneumococcal disease. All adults should get a yearly flu shot, as well as a tetanus booster every ten years, Horn said.
“You might never really think about [a booster] until one day you’re in your yard and step on a nail,” Duckworth said.
Any procedures or tests your doctor recommends during your wellness visit might be dependent on what your insurance covers, Duckworth said. Most plans cover yearly lipid and blood glucose checks. High cholesterol and blood sugar can have few or no symptoms in the early stages. Regular testing allows you and your doctor to spot problems, start lifestyle changes or treatment, and decrease your risk of developing cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
Horn says some patients anticipate their wellness visit to include more components of a full physical exam, like a complete blood count, urine test or chest x-ray. However, evidence shows they have little value as preventive measures, so fewer insurance plans cover them.
In addition, if and how often you do certain routine tests and screenings depend on your sex, age and family health history.
“It’s going to be different if you’re 30 and have no underlying health issues compared to if you’re 65 with some chronic health conditions,” Duckworth said.
Who makes all of these screening recommendations? Horn said UMMC physicians typically follow guidance from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. This independent, volunteer group of doctors, scientists and epidemiologists reviews the evidence for and against preventive screenings, medications and interventions.
Most guidelines physicians use meet USPSTF’s evidence-level B, meaning there is “good evidence,” Horn said, that the screening, intervention or medication regimen is effective.
For example, the USPSTF recommends screening for cervical cancer every three to five years between the ages of 21 and 65, and annual screenings for breast cancer after age 40, colon cancer past age 45, and, for current and former smokers, lung cancer after age 50.
Even though people with chronic conditions like diabetes may see a doctor multiple times a year and get their vital signs checked at those appointments, Duckworth said yearly wellness visit provides “more time to discuss anything else with their physician about overall health.”
That includes ways a patient can maintain and improve their health, such as diet, exercise and sleep routines. Duckworth says it’s helpful for patients to go over the prescription and over-the-counter medicines they use to make sure they are using these drugs properly or if they may need to seek more specialized treatment. She also asks patients about other types of preventive health care they receive, like dental and eye appointments.
The annual exam isn’t just about physical health. It’s a chance to discuss mental and emotional well-being, Horn said, something that’s come to the forefront with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having a doctor you see annually gives you a reliable place to turn if you do develop an illness.
“The doctor-patient relationship develops even more so between these regular visits,” Horn said, adding that “how we respond to patient questions and create open lines for communication” goes a long way in shaping the relationship.
Ready to have a wellness check, but don’t have a physician you see regularly? Horn said doctors with specialties such as general internal medicine, family medicine or internal medicine-pediatrics are good choices for any adult. Duckworth also suggests asking the people you trust about who they see for care to get a recommendation.
“Going to a doctor, even if you feel healthy, can be scary,” Duckworth said. “When you find a doctor you trust, that sets up the encounter to be successful.”
UMMC physicians see primary care patients at several locations in the Jackson metropolitan area and our community clinics. Call (888) 815-2005 or click here to request an appointment.
The above article appears in CONSULT, UMMC’s monthly e-newsletter sharing news about cutting-edge clinical and health science education advances and innovative biomedical research at the Medical Center and giving you tips and suggestions on how you and the people you love can live a healthier life. Click here and enter your email address to receive CONSULT free of charge. You may cancel at any time.