Do You Get Annual Checkups?

Some people only go to the doctor if they’re feeling ill or want to get something checked out. Others schedule an annual checkup to screen for the things that could possibly make them ill. I’m guilty of being one of the former.

In the Times’s Well blog, Doctor Danielle Ofri talks about how unsettling it is for her to read a new study concluding that “general health checkups for adults did not help patients live longer or healthier lives,” and then goes on to explain why annual checkups are necessary, which is basically: It’s better to find out you have a thing as early as possible, because the earlier you discover a thing, the earlier you can treat it. Here’s what she said she did for a 43-year-old man who came in to ask her about shoulder pain:

I checked his blood pressure to screen for the “silent killer” of hypertension. I noticed that he hadn’t had a tetanus booster in 10 years, not to mention an annual flu shot. I ordered a blood test for cholesterol. I went through his family medical history in case there were any particular diseases we should be on the lookout for.

We discussed a healthy diet and exercise. I screened for H.I.V., depression, domestic violence, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse.

What I’d like to know from such a study is: If annual checkups don’t actually help patients live longer, what do they cost the health care system? And what if they’re more effective if they’re done every two years, instead of annually?