doctor talking with patient

Why An Annual Medical Exam is Important

December 18, 2023

You’re healthy and have never experienced a major medical issue. Sure, maybe you had COVID at some point over the last four years, but you’ve never been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Should you get a regular checkup?

Absolutely yes, says Danissa Williams, MD, a family medicine specialist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Everyone age 2 and older, including men and women who feel as good as they did in childhood, can benefit from an annual medical exam with a primary care provider (as known as an internist, general practitioner, family medicine physician, or nurse practitioner) to make sure you are healthy and do not have medical problems you’re unaware of.

“An annual physical is similar to a routine car maintenance check,” says Williams. “It’s a preventive wellness screening to look at general health and things that could be concerning in the future; to essentially get a baseline of your current state of health.”

Most annual exams focus on the basics, like blood pressure, weight, smoking status, alcohol use, and asking about relationships and lifestyle habits. You may feel healthy, but your doctor can often discern additional signs and knows how to address them before they become serious issues. The baseline information helps establish a point in time that can be referred back to, in case there are any changes in your health.

What to Expect in an Annual Medical Exam

  1. Vital signs (weight, blood pressure, heart rate)
  2. Medication and allergy review
  3. Review of systems (questions about each organ system)
  4. Physical exam (top-to-toe, including head and neck, heart, lungs, stomach, skin, joints, and neurological)
  5. Breasts, genitalia, rectum (specific to history/age/gender)
  6. Health expectations/goals (review about vaccines, screenings, investigations)

Having a recurring exam gives your doctor the chance to see trends or changes to help you manage your health based on real information about risk.

The Thing About Virtual Visits

Telemedicine is booming and is a terrific option for many doctor visits, but a virtual visit is not usually a good option for annual exams. Providers need to examine your body, and collect blood and urine specimens for labs, which is impossible to do in a virtual setting, and they also might notice something in person that they can’t see on a screen.

What to Know Before You Go for an Annual Exam

Even the most hesitant of patients tend to have the same questions as everyone else. Here are some of the most common.

Can I get EVERYTHING checked through my bloodwork? What exactly are you looking for?

A: It’s normal for most doctors to run a complete blood count, or CBC, as part of an annual exam – this will look at components of blood such as red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Doctors will also look at things like cholesterol and electrolytes. Sometimes these tests can find underlying conditions in patients without any obvious symptoms.

But from there, your doctor will use their judgment. Hormone levels (especially testosterone) levels, cancer markers, and vitamin/mineral profiles depend on your specific situation. You can always ask the doctor about indications, risks, benefits, and potential costs.

What is covered by my insurance?

It depends on your plan’s benefits, but annual physical exams are designed to be preventative—and are usually covered when done in person. If a follow-up visit is required, there may be an additional bill. But insurance usually encourages annual exams because they can help find problems before they become more serious – and costly.

Do I really need to see a doctor every year?

Seeing your doctor regularly can help to notice changes and trends over time. There isn’t strict guidance on doing this once a year, says Williams. But it’s a convenient way to remember and schedule. Establishing and maintaining a relationship with a doctor is the best way to stay healthy. If you have a health issue arise between visits, you will know who you can ask for help. Besides, it’s just once a year!


Danissa Williams, MD, a family medicine specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center