Many of us undergo annual health check ups these days. The belief is that they can help pick up certain conditions early. This way, treatments can be started sooner rather than later.
But are annual health check ups really necessary?
Some would ask the question – ‘I am only 30 years old and I feel fine. Why should I undergo a health check up?’
Its a fair question, and one that I will attempt to answer here.
Defining Annual Health Check Ups
Annual health check ups are not just a visit to the doctor. They also include a variety of blood tests with other investigations such as a chest x-ray, blood tests and possibly some cardiac investigations.
These tests are repeated every year.
In the past, health check ups were not really given that much importance. People only went to see their doctor if they were sick or were just not feeling right.
Not just that; medical bodies also recommended getting a battery of tests done after a particular age. This seems to have changed now.
Medical authorities in the recent years have expressed no benefit of annual health check ups, especially in the younger populations. However, despite this, people still continue to get these tests done.
The Changing Trend Of Diseases
In our practice, we now see younger people presenting to hospitals and clinics with different health problems.
I am not just talking about coughs, colds and sneezes, but conditions such as heart disease, stroke and kidney disease seems to be affecting the younger populations these days.
In the western world, annual health check ups are being met with a degree of criticism. This is because it is believed to be a way of spending money unnecessarily just to prove that someone is healthy.
In other words, it is not cost effective.
Some have now gone so far as to say that getting an annual health check up does not prevent you from getting sick. Blood tests can be normal at the time of the test, but this does not mean it would not worsen after your tests have been done.
That being said, with the earlier occurrence of diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, a routine visit to the doctors should not really be as bad.
Just last week, I saw a patient who was visiting from outside state. He came for a ‘routine check up’. He was physically very well, and the young age of 47 had the whole world as his oyster.
On examination, he had high blood pressure, and his blood sugar levels were through the roof.
He had a new diagnosis of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. It obviously surprised him and his family, given how well he looked and how fit he felt.
Many diseases are silent, and with such a high incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease in India, the annual health check up seems to add some value.
However, this value may only be perceived by some in whom the tests reveal something negative.
The Problems With Annual Health Check Ups
The main problem with annual medical exams is not only just the money that it costs. It is also the time it takes and the fear of what it might reveal.
Some doctors are against yearly medicals, stating that it is an unnecessary exercise that rarely reveals anything positive.
But the other side of the coin is that advising your patient against it may be perceived that the doctor does not care much about the individuals health. They could sense a feeling of being abandoned.
Many patients like their doctor to be proactive. Requesting annual exams, reviewing the results and offering advice is seen by some like their doctor really cares for them.
Many doctors do not really feel that annual health checks are essential. The choice is up to the individual to get them done if they wish to know how physically fit they are.
Let’s talk about cost.
As you will very well know, many diagnostic centers offer various health packages tailored to different individuals. Many of them even do investigations that are not really necessary.
For example annual x-rays as a part of a package are not really necessary. If you have had an x-ray the year before which was normal, then it is unlikely to show anything new unless you have new symptoms.
It is just exposure to radiation that would do you more harm than good.
Competition is now rampant, and I see that every diagnostic center that crops up offers different health packages at the sweetest of discounts so that people choose their service.
Ultimately, it is all about money when it comes to selling packages. People usually opt for cheaper ones, though many go for centers with a reputation for good care despite the higher cost.
Price wars are rampant in the healthcare industry. It is natural to select the ones that are lighter on the pocket.
Of course, cheaper does not always mean better, as you will very well know. The opposite is also true.
Time and again, I have picked up patients with conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol during an annual check up.
Had they not got the tests done, they would probably have carried on without a care or worry in the world.
But this is just for a handful, mind you.
I recently had the pleasure of treating an entire running club. It was a great experience seeing so many folks, both young and old, running everyday to stay healthy.
It was quite inspiring really, and I hope one day this culture will catch on with everyone in our great country.
Despite such great health, I picked up a couple of health issues in some runners. While these were all easily fixable, they would not have been picked up had they not had a physical.
We are encountering health problems in younger individuals these days. Just around 4 months ago, I picked up a heart problem in a young 26 year old lady who had a history of diabetes for 4 years.
Unbeknownst to her, she had problems in her ECG and echocardiogram. She underwent cardiac testing and eventually required heart surgery to correct her problem.
It is at times like this that I appreciate the value of the annual check up, despite what health bodies say abroad.
In the years to come, it is likely that medicine will move along the ‘preventive’ route. This means that people will not just start to take care of their health after they have become ill, but instead take care well before this.
This way, they can keep themselves healthy for years to come.
How Often Should Check Ups Be Done?
A tough question to answer, but one on your minds I am sure.
There are no specific guidelines, but here is what we usually recommend.
If you are between the ages of 20 to 40 years and have no past medical problems, then once every 3 – 5 years should be sufficient. Women require more frequent testing.
If you are above 40 years, then once every two years should be enough, provided you are normally very well.
However, if you are above 40 and have risk factors such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or smoking, then annual checks can be very helpful.
The Indian population is affected earlier with these problems compared to Caucasians from the western world, so it makes sense to have earlier annual health checks.
Rather than booking a health check up yourself and getting tested for no reason at all, talk to your doctor to see what is relevant. Your annual health check up should be a worthwhile exercise that is tailor-made to YOU.
Annual health check ups are a good way of picking up health problems at an early stage. However, their real benefit is limited to a small population and not every one. Talk to your doctor as to what tests are right for you, and don’t just fall for offers.