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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Monday, September 24, 2007

Value of annual physicals debatable, study says

Annual physicals get a checkup in today's Archives of Internal Medicine.

Adult preventive health exams and women's gynecologic exams are among the most common reasons to see a doctor, but most preventive services other than Pap smears take place outside those visits, according to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School.

"There's clearly a role for the type of preventive services we studied -- cancer screening, cholesterol testing and counseling about quitting smoking, losing weight and exercise," Dr. John Z. Ayanian of Harvard said in an interview. "It's a question of what's the best approach to get those provided."

Looking closely at the exams, the authors found that checkups including gynecological exams accounted for 1 in 12 adult visits to doctors. Annual exams are more common in the Northeast than in the West, according to previous research. Physicians in Boston, for example, are more likely to say they perform the annual exams than their counterparts in San Diego. People with insurance are more likely to go for physicals than people without coverage.

Annual physical exams "fill a very important role in the US healthcare system," but it wouldn't be feasible to recommend that all adults have annual physicals because there aren't enough primary care physicians or gynecologists, said Ayanian, who practices at Brigham and Women's Hospital. People get most of their preventive services when they come for an acute problem or receive care for chronic conditions, according to the authors' analysis of data from national surveys done from 2002 to 2004.

The study may help guide policy about who should be having preventive exams and what they should include, Ayanian said. People's expectations for blood tests or EKGs during checkups may increase healthcare costs without adding value, the authors found.

"We need to be very selective about what tests we recommend on a routine basis and limit them to those that are likely to have value in affecting people's health rather than reflexively ordering tests out of some sense of tradition," he said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:33 PM
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