This article published yesterday in the Los Angeles Times features a great summary of the current scientific evidence about preventive care. (Registration is required by the Times to read the article, but is free.) Some of what is known may surprise you. The annual physical examination — for example listening to the heart and the lungs, feeling the belly — likely has no benefit to a healthy patient who is feeling well. Only a small number of preventive tests have been proven to help save lives and detect important diseases early. This includes screening for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and colon cancer.
I recommend you read the whole article with special attention to the bulleted list at the end. This list very well summarizes all of the preventive tests that have proven value. Other tests done on healthy people with the intention of catching diseases early, such as annual stress tests or chest X rays or CT scans, simply don’t work.
The most authoritative and unbiased recommendations on the value of various preventative healthcare tests are made by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. They are cited extensively in the Times article.
Finally, I’m delighted that the article stresses the value of physician counseling in the annual exam. The advice to quit smoking, to diet, to exercise, to strike a better balance between work and leisure, or to wear seatbelts can be much more valuable than any test, and as I’ve seen many times in my own practice, can dramatically redirect a patient’s life in a healthier direction.