How to Make the Most of Your Annual Physical Exam

Let’s get physical.


Physicals are fundamental to maintaining optimum health. As a patient, it’s your responsibility not only to schedule your annual visit, but to come prepared to discuss your health concerns.

A typical exam lasts approximately 30 minutes, so make the most of that time. Dr. Sabrina Hofmeister, family physician at the Medical College of Wisconsin, recommends that patients bring a list of any physical and mental health questions, the medications they are taking and knowledge of their family history.

The purpose of this annual visit is to help your doctor to track and manage problems in the early stages. The type of specific services offered in a physical depend on age, gender and lifestyle choices. The basics include assessing high blood pressure risk, administering vaccines such as tetanus, measles and hepatitis, and cancer screening.

Another piece of advice: get comfortable talking about the uncomfortable. “A lot of diseases and conditions have very vague symptoms, and patients don’t always know what they mean,” Hofmeister says. “If there’s anything unusual that you’re experiencing, it’s worthwhile to bring up to your doctor.” If feelings of embarrassment or discomfort arise, acknowledge them. “If they’re a good provider, they’ll pause, speak with you directly, ask clarifying questions and be a good listener,” says Dr. Allison Kos, chief medical officer at Progressive Community Health Centers. “We all deserve that.”

Doctors typically use this opportunity to evaluate depression along with other mental health elements that might need support. Kos says depression screenings are short. Commonly, these conversations start out as a few simple questions. Do you feel down, blue, depressed? Have you lost interest or pleasure in normal activities? “It really is a high level and a quick check to see if we can go down this pathway, and see if there are any other issues,” Kos says. 

Your Physical Exam Checklist

Here are some fundamentals most doctors say a physical should include to ensure you’re getting the most comprehensive exam.

For the Adults:

“These preventative visits really give doctors a defined amount of time to talk about health goals for the next year and how the doctor can help the patient reach those goals.” – Dr. Allison Kos

☐ Cancer screenings based on age, sex, risk factors
☐ If older than 65, a DEXA scan to assess risk for osteoporosis or fractures
☐ Depression screening
☐ Lipid (cholesterol) screening to assess risk for heart disease and stroke
☐ Administer scheduled immunizations

For the Kiddos (Well-Child Checks):

“A good portion of the visit should be spent providing anticipatory guidance to the parents, in regard to helping their child develop healthy lifestyle habits, and to prepare them for any upcoming milestones.” – Dr. Sabrina Hofmeister

☐ Administer scheduled immunizations
☐ Converse about performance in school and peer relationships to assess behavioral needs
☐ Detailed screening for abnormal delays in speech and motor development
☐ Growth and nutrition assessments to track physical development
☐ Further testing based on concerns or risk factors such as lead poisoning or anemia

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue. 

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