Just 1 in 5 Americans typically visit their general practitioners annually for a well check, according to some estimates—and that's even prior to pandemic office-visit fears. While some view these appointments as a waste of time and money, the doctors we spoke to are firm believers in the old adage "prevention is better than cure."
"The information and knowledge patients can gain as a result of the questions they ask at physicals can provide important insights into one's health," says Monaa Zafar, M.D., a primary care physician at Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, New York. Not only is it educational for you, and a great opportunity to advocate for your well-being, but, she says, "Patients can also use this exercise to gauge how attuned your physician is to both your physical and mental well-being. This can help you develop a better rapport, and can even help you decide if your doctor is a good fit for you."
Yep, here's a vital reminder: As the patient, you're in the driver's seat of when you see your care team—and who's part of it.
These questions will assist in your quest to find your MVP care team—and to prevent health challenges before they happen.
Getty Images / Tom Werner
The Top 8 Questions You Should Ask at Your Next Checkup, According to Doctors
"Use the annual visit as an opportunity to update your primary care doctor of changes in your health, as well such as new medications you were given by other doctors, surgeries you completed or new allergies to medications," advises Isabel Valdez, PA, a physician assistant and assistant professor of internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Beyond those updates, the following eight topics are excellent to surface with your doctor to make the most of your time together—and to keep tabs on your total body wellness.
1. What impact will my family history have on my health?
If you haven't—or haven't recently—updated your doctor about your family tree and any health conditions within it, do a little homework prior to your appointment. On paper or in a note in your smartphone, write down any diagnoses given to your first-degree relatives (your mom, dad, siblings) and second-degree relatives (grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, half-siblings) to bring up and add to your chart. Then inquire about if you should consider any lifestyle changes as a preventive measure or keep tabs on any signs, symptoms or numbers in particular.
"I'm a strong believer in preventive medicine, so discussing how my family history, gender, ethnicity-related and age-specific concerns or risks can be controlled is important to me when I visit my doctor, too," says Zafar.
2. How are my daily habits impacting my health?
"Diet and exercise [are some] of the best behavior areas for patients to focus on for general health," explains Nicholas Pantaleo, M.D., a family medicine physician and the department chair of internal medicine at Westmed Medical Group in Yonkers, New York.
While it can be uncomfortable to admit if you've fallen off the workout wagon or have made fast-food burgers and fries a daily lunch habit, Pantaleo recommends you review this with your provider during a yearly checkup and assess any room for improvement.
3. What screening tests should I consider, including age- and gender-specific cancer screenings?
Many patients wait for their docs to tell them that it's time for screening tests, like mammograms and colonoscopies. But Mary Pat Friedlander, M.D., associate program director at UPMC St. Margaret Residency Program in Pittsburgh, admits, "Sometimes because of other things in the visit, we may forget to mention those tests and they are so important to be done when recommended."
If your doctor doesn't bring it up, be sure to "ask about age- and gender-specific cancer screenings, such as colon, breast and cervical cancer screenings," Valdez says. "These cancers in particular are preventable with proper screening, and your provider will be more than ready to help you adjust your lifestyle."
4. What vaccinations do I need?
"Many adults may be due for other vaccines than the annual flu vaccine—and now, the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters," Friedlander says.
Ask if you're up to date on tetanus shots and if any other vaccines, such as for shingles and pneumonia, might be beneficial and appropriate for you to help prevent future diseases.
5. Are there any medications I'm taking that aren't serving me anymore?
Whether it's to impact your hormones, your blood pressure, your heartburn or otherwise, when your doctor asks you to list your current medications, inquire about whether any can be removed from your routine.
"Many times we start patients on medications that may not need to be taken lifelong, and it's always best to stop those that are no longer necessary," Friedlander says.
6. Are there any vitamins or supplements that I should be taking?
While vitamins, mineral supplements and multivitamins aren't necessary for everyone—especially if you're eating a whole-foods-forward, well-balanced diet—certain populations can benefit from these to fill in any nutrition gaps, Friedlander says.
"Some patients who eat a vegan diet or have lactose problems may need extra supplements in their routine to get the vitamins and minerals their bodies require," she says.
As you discuss any new supplements, be sure to chat about any potential interactions with your current medications. And since the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA in the same way as foods or prescription medicines, ask about any specific brands or styles of the supplement you should seek out to ensure you're not throwing your money away (or worse, harming your health). As a general rule, seek out supplements that are listed as "third-party tested"—the USP seal is one example.
7. If I have or am at risk for any chronic diseases, what can I do now to reduce my risk for the disease progressing in the future?
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, and is responsible for 1 in every 3 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if you don't have any signs and symptoms now, the annual visit is a great opportunity to ask about ways to reduce the risk of heart disease, especially if any of your relatives have been impacted by the condition, Valdez says.
"Your medical provider will likely ask you about diet and exercise habits, as well as take some objective measures like your blood pressure, weight and labs to determine your risk of heart disease. Since diabetes is such a prevalent disease, the annual visit will serve as a chance to check your blood sugar levels, so be sure to ask your medical provider to check your blood sugars," she says.
For chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, "It's especially important for patients to know their target goals," Pantaleo adds. "For example, most patients with hypertension, or high blood pressure, should aim for a target goal now of less than 130/80 mg/dL. With this knowledge, patients can monitor their home blood pressure and even self-assess their progress and health. Similarly, people with diabetes should also be aware of their target home glucose levels, as well as their HgA1c targets for better health."
8. How can I maintain my physical and mental health at my age and as I get older?
True, your vital signs like blood pressure, cholesterol and the five other things that could make you more likely to get heart disease, according to the American Heart Association are important, but what's going on in your head and heart is crucial too.
"Mental health is a critical part of health care, and engaging your doctor without hesitation on how you feel is imperative to healthy living," Zafar says.
Many doctors have begun asking if you've been feeling down, anxious or otherwise "not yourself" mentally or emotionally, but if they don't bring it up, definitely do before you depart. You need not suffer in silence, and there are several proven treatment methods for anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges that can be discussed if your doctor is aware of your circumstances.
The Bottom Line
If you have any questions or concerning symptoms prior to the appointment, jot them down in detail to bring up during your checkup.
"Be clear, honest and straightforward," Pantaleo says. "Sometimes, hiding information can delay diagnosis and treatment plans."
And in addition to keeping the checkup questions above top of mind, another important question to consider: Following up to clarify details that weren't quite clear during your appointment. If you find it helpful to take notes, feel free to do so. Then "star" the topics you want to go back to before the doctor departs the room.
"There are many times that the patient—and the doctor for that matter—think that the other is understanding what they are saying. This can lead to many mistakes if we are not clear in our statements," Friedlander says. "I love when patients write things down so they are as accurate and clear as possible when they come into the office and describe a symptom. In the moment, lots can be forgotten."
If you think of any other questions or have concerns after your visit, schedule a virtual follow-up or utilize online portal messaging, Zafar recommends, since "both make getting care efficient and easy."