The beginning of the year often elevates health-focused resolutions, but one of the most beneficial goals may be one that keeps eluding your calendar: an annual check-up.
“Preventative medicine has the ability to help people support their goals of staying healthy and help physicians catch any health concern early so that we can actually do more for them,” says Cleveland Piggott, MD, MPH, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “When we catch illness later in its course, we're often more limited in what we can do.”
Preventive health care — screenings, vaccinations, and check-ins with a primary physician — can save tens of thousands of lives each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yet surveys continuously show that many Americans are putting it off.
There are several ways Piggott says people can put their health first this year by keeping up with regular preventative care and prioritizing important conversations with a family doctor.
Returning to routine health care
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a major disruption in preventative health care for many, Piggott says. With the closure of some offices and fear of the coronavirus itself, many canceled or postponed visits, and may still be doing so.
“Especially toward the later part of the pandemic phase, we found that people were presenting sicker, and there were illnesses that we could have caught and helped earlier,” he says. “This lapse in care made some elements of the pandemic worse, as we saw a huge drop off in vaccinations, especially in pediatric populations, for example. People couldn’t get the preventative care that they needed to really stave off some of those illnesses.”
Now, with more normal health care operations in place, Piggott says it’s a good time to commit to regular appropriate care, screenings, and vaccinations.
“People associate an annual visit with bloodwork and recommended immunizations, but it’s also about talking through health goals and how we can support patients, especially when there may not be quick fixes,” he says. “We also try to support people with social determinants of health. That can mean pointing them toward resources if they’re struggling with food or housing insecurity and reminding them about other forms of care, including dental and vision check-ups.”
The first step is making an appointment. Piggott recommends setting an annual reminder to schedule a doctor’s visit to keep from pushing it down the road.
“Some of my patients make preventative health care part of their birthday month routine so they don’t forget it,” he says.
It’s also important to pay attention to any reminders or messages coming from a provider. Doctor’s offices often also keep track of annual reminders.
Getting the most from your doctor visit
Preventative health care can help doctors detect disease early, often allowing doctors more treatment and care options.
“One example of this is colon cancer,” Piggott says. “It’s generally a slow-growing cancer that, if caught early, has a good prognosis. Another is depression. If you haven't been feeling quite like yourself for a while, physicians have ways to support you, from getting access to a therapist to developing an exercise routine or prescribing necessary medications.”
Building a relationship with a primary care doctor can also serve an important role in preventative health. Having a history with a provider can help them know when something is normal or not.
For those new or returning to preventative care this year, Piggott suggests doing some preparation work before the visit. Making a list of questions or concerns can be particularly helpful for both the patient and the doctor.
“I think we've all been in moments where we have all these questions we want to talk to someone about and it floats out of our mind right when we are supposed to bring it up,” he says.
Additionally, Piggott says to prioritize that list in order of most importance. A doctor may not be able to devote the thoroughness needed to a health concern if there are more than two or three concerns, but is happy to find a time to talk about them at a future visit. It can also be challenging or overwhelming as a patient as too many recommendations or changes from a doctor can be hard to follow through on.
Preventative care check-ins are a great time to learn and ask clarifying questions, especially as evidence and recommendations for screenings can change.
“Your provider might not do labs or certain procedures at every preventative visit, for example, because of new evidence informing updated recommendations,” Piggott explains. “Evidence based preventative care in the context of a relationship with a trusted doctor is an important and often overlooked way to maintain health and improve your quality of life.”