On The Early Show Tuesday, medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay said opinion is mixed in the medical community on how worthwhile those exams are.
A number of medical organizations and government agencies have expressed doubt that a full battery of lab tests once a year really benefits a patient's health. The opinion there runs more toward periodic screening for specific medical problems for which you're at elevated risk due to your personal and family medical history, or other factors, such as your age.
The American Medical Association, for instance, says the interval can vary, depending on the perceived risk. It may not need to be once a year.
Still, Senay noted, it appears a number of practicing physicians believe annual physicals are worth it.
A study released a year-and-a-half ago in the Archives of Internal Medicine found most primary care physicians responding to a survey do find medical value in annual exams, and continue to perform them.
Other research suggests patients worry less about the state of their health when they're fully checked once a year, and that peace of mind is valuable to them. So is the relationship between patient and doctor, which these annual visits may enhance.
It's advisable for you to do certain things before going for an annual checkup, to help assure you'll get the most out of it, such as making lists of medical complaints and all your medications. If the doctor is new to you, get your medical records in order, including your family medical history.
Why are those steps important?
It's easy to give a doctor a quick rundown of how you're feeling, then realize when it's over that you forgot something, Senay pointed out. You'll remember better if you bring a written list.
Very often, several doctors treating a patient prescribe medications separately, and the only way the doctor doing the exam will have the full list is if you provide it. And he or she should also know what over-the-counter medications you are taking.
If you've gone to other doctors in the past, get your records from them.
Detailed medical histories can help a doctor decide what tests are most worth doing. Quite a few medical conditions run in families, Senay noted. The more the doctor knows about your family's history, the better chance there is of finding something early, before symptoms even begin.
There are forms for compiling family histories on various Web sites, including one posted by the =http://www.hhs.gov/familyhistory/download.html>office of the United States surgeon general.
There are also things you write down ahead of time, including questions for the doctor. If you're not sure what certain symptoms or pains or marks on your body might mean, ask.
You also should ask if you're not completely sure how to take your medications, or which medicines might not mix well with one another. And you should be prepared to ask how you will learn the results of the tests you're given. Some are ready instantly, but others need to be analyzed by a lab. Will the doctor send you the results, or should you call the doctor?
The physical exam may be the best time all year to ask your doctor everything that's on your mind, all at once.