What are the risks and benefits of getting an annual check-up from your doctor?
Physicians and patients have come to expect the annual check-up as a routine part of care. “However, considerable research has not demonstrated a substantial benefit,” so a “revolt is brewing against the tradition of periodic” check-ups. “Even the Society for General Internal Medicine advised primary care physicians to avoid ‘routine general health checks for asymptomatic adults.’”
As I discuss in my video Is It Worth Getting Annual Health Check-Ups?, routine check-ups do seem to make sense. But, historically, medical practice has included all sorts of interventions that seemed to make sense, such as hormone replacement therapy for menopause—that is, until it was put to the test and found to increase risks of breast cancer, blood clots, heart disease, and stroke. “History repeatedly shows that good intentions and ‘common sense’ kill in the name of prevention (for example, prone sleeping recommendation for infants).” Indeed, doctors killed babies by making the so-called common sense recommendation that infants sleep on their tummies, whereas we now know “Face Up to Wake Up.” “We should always demand evidence rather than succumb to delusion.”
“We check our cars regularly, so why shouldn’t we also check our bodies…?” Well, unlike cars, our bodies have self-healing properties. To see if the benefits outweigh the harms, researchers decided to put it to the test.
“What are the benefits and harms of general health checks for adult populations?” The bottom line is that check-ups were “not associated with lower rates of all-cause mortality, mortality from cardiovascular disease, or mortality from cancer,” meaning they weren’t associated with living longer or a lower risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, or cancer. So, general check-ups may not reduce disease rates or death rates, but they do increase the number of new diagnoses. And, the “[h]armful effects of some tests and subsequent treatment could have balanced out possible beneficial effects of others.”
Possible harms from check-ups include “overdiagnosis, overtreatment, distress or injury from invasive follow-up tests, distress due to false positive test results, false reassurance due to false negative test results, possible continuation of adverse health behaviours due to negative test results, adverse psychosocial effects due to labelling, and difficulties with getting insurance” (now that you have a pre-existing condition), not to mention all of the associated costs.
Take diabetes, for example. Wouldn’t it be great if we detected cases of diabetes earlier? Perhaps not, if you were one of the people given Avandia, the number one diabetes drug that was then pulled off the market because instead of helping people, it appeared to be killing them. Adverse drug events are now one of our leading causes of death. When it comes to lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes, maybe we should focus instead on creating healthier food environments. This is what one of my favorite organizations, Balanced, does to help prevent the diabetes epidemic in the first place.
How many times have you tried to inform someone about healthy eating and evidence-based nutrition, only to have them say, “No, I don’t have to worry. My doctor reassured me I’m fine. I just had a check-up, and everything’s normal.” As if having a normal cholesterol is okay in a society where it’s normal to drop dead of a heart attack, the number one killer of men and women. It would be one thing if you went to see a lifestyle medicine doctor who spent the check-up giving you the tools to prevent 80 percent of chronic disease, but given the way medicine is currently practiced, it’s no wonder why the history of routine check-ups “has been one of glorious failure, but generations of well meaning clinicians and public health physicians struggle to allow themselves to believe it.” But, “policy should be based on evidence…”
Poor diet may be “on par with tobacco smoking as the most common actual causes of death,” yet the medical profession is inadequately trained in nutrition. Worse, nutrition education in medical school appears to be declining. If you can believe it, there is actually a “shrinking of formalized nutrition education” among health professionals, so the advice you get during your annual check-up may just be from the last tabloid your doctor skimmed while in the supermarket check-out line.
“And screening appointments should not be regarded as a form of ‘health education,’” read one medical journal editorial. “People who are obese know very well that they are, and if we have no means of helping them…then we should shut up.” Well, if you really have nothing to say that will help them, maybe you should shut up, especially those doctors who say they “have no idea what constitutes a ‘healthy’ diet”—although we do know that veggies and nuts are a good start.
Won’t a check-up allow your physician to do a comprehensive physical exam and routine blood testing? I discuss that, as well as the pros and cons, in my vide Is it Worth Getting an Annual Physical Exam?.
Did I say lifestyle medicine? Yes! Learn more about this exciting growing field in Lifestyle Medicine: Treating the Causes of Disease and Convincing Doctors to Embrace Lifestyle Medicine. Make sure your doctor is a member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (and even better certified by the American Board of Lifestyle Medicine).
Still don’t understand how there can be risks? See Why Prevention Is Worth a Ton of Cure. Unfortunately, physicians and patients alike wildly overestimate the benefits of pills and procedures. See, for example, The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs.
The fact is Physicians May Be Missing Their Most Important Tool.
And what about mammograms? See my video series:
Michael Greger, M.D.
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