Routine general exams are a cornerstone to good health and represent the power of preventative medicine. With an annual general exam, many health conditions can be detected before they become a serious threat – which is something that becomes much more important with age. The young and healthy may not need an exam every single year, but anyone with significant risk factors should strongly consider regular checkups.
What do routine general exams include?
A general exam is handled by a primary care physician and is largely dedicated to gathering information. The goal is to provide both the patient and the physician with the clearest possible picture of the patient’s current health, so that treatment plans can be devised or lifestyle adjustments can be made. Physicians have several tools available to gather this information, some of them including:
1. Medical history – Medical histories are extremely important and fundamental components of doctor visits, as they give the patient a chance to present any complaints or concerns to the physician. It’s a good idea for patients to be as detailed and honest as possible with their doctor, as this will speed up the diagnostic and treatment process.
The physician will also inquire about their patient’s family medical history, taking note of things like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Family medical histories are useful in supplementing diagnostic testing and spotting potential complications with proposed treatment options.
During the medical history portion of the appointment, the physician will want some insight into some of the patient’s behaviors, including tobacco and alcohol use, sexual health and patterns, exercise regimen, diet and vaccination history. All of this can be used to paint a clearer picture for the physician.
2. Taking vitals – One of the physician’s assistants will likely take the patient’s vitals, including heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and possibly respiration rate. A patient’s vitals are something of an introduction to the patient’s general health and they are monitored closely to ensure they remain within normal bounds.
3. Exams – This is the most comprehensive part of the appointment and where the physician takes a closer look at the patient. The physician will run through a series of exams to check the health of particular organs and organ systems. The examination may involve parts that are exclusive to men or women. Standard exams include a heart checkup, where the physician will listen for abnormal sounds through a stethoscope. A murmur or irregular heartbeat is a potential sign of heart disease. The doctor will also use the stethoscope to examine the lungs, as any wheezing, crackling or shortened breathing may also indicate a concern. During the head exam, the physician will check the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, tonsils and throat, looking for anything that appears abnormal. The doctor may also check to see if the thyroid, lymph nodes and carotid arteries feel normal.
The heart, lungs and head exams are standard for every routine doctor’s visit, but the physician may also check other parts of the body. During an abdominal exam, the physician may palpate parts of the abdomen to check for tender spots and search for abdominal fluid buildup. The doctor may also do this to determine liver size, which can be an important indicator of liver health.
The physician may also check the patient’s dermatological health, examining their fingernails, toenails and skin for any discoloration or infection. Finally, the physician will run a quick neurological exam, which involves checking the patient’s reflexes, balance, muscle function and general mental state. This isn’t a psychological exam, but can be used to detect abnormal changes in cognitive function.
4. Male or female exam – In addition to the general exam, the physician can provide a more in-depth examination for men or women. During a male physical, the doctor may check the testicles, looking for abnormal characteristics, like enlargement, tenderness or lumps. The penis is also checked for troublesome physical issues, like those resulting from sexually transmitted infections. The hernia exam is what most men think of when they think of a physical, as this is where the patient turns and coughs. Its purpose is to detect for any weakness present in the abdominal wall behind the scrotum. Last, and perhaps the most intimidating, is the prostate exam. During a prostate exam, the physician will check the organ for enlargement or unusual growths. Prostate exams are crucial for detecting potentially life-threatening conditions like prostate cancer.
A female exam will include a breast checkup, in which the physician feels for any abnormal lumps. Breast lumps can be a sign of a benign cyst or a warning sign of cancer, so regular breast exams are important. During the breast exam, the doctor may also check the lymph nodes under the arms and the nipples for any abnormalities. A pelvic exam, though not necessary at every checkup, may nonetheless be performed. The pelvic exam checks for any issues with the vagina, vulva, uterus, cervix or ovaries, and usually includes a check for common sexually transmitted infections.
5. Testing – Testing is not a standard part of routine physical exams, but if there are any symptoms present, a blood count, urinalysis or chemistry panel can provide insight into their cause. These tests are performed in the exam room and the samples are sent off to a laboratory for analysis. Other tests include lipid panels to check for cholesterol levels and blood sugar testing to determine diabetes risk factors. Lipid panels and blood sugar testing are normally only ordered when the patient suffers from any obvious risk factors, like advanced age or obesity.
Following the examination, the physician will offer advice and information about how to manage symptoms or how to maintain the patient’s health. Nutritional and behavioral recommendations are standard and can help the patient optimize their well-being. After all, good health is about prevention, and a critical part of that prevention is having routine physical exams.