Are All Annual Visits The Same?

Even though a routine trip to the doctor might not be the most enjoyable way for a person to spend time, most individuals know that annual checkups are essential for overall health. Some people call this doctor’s visit an annual physical exam, while other individuals use the term wellness visit. But is there a fundamental difference between the two types of visits? And if so, do people need both appointments?

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Annual physical exams explained

What is an annual physical exam? This type of appointment centers around checking a patient’s physical health. Typically, standard vitals will be collected, such as measurements for height and weight and checking blood pressure and breathing. Additional diagnostic testing might be conducted if a patient has known medical conditions or a family history of specific diseases. Other standard tests that are completed during a physical exam include checking the head and neck, abdomen, and nervous system. A patient might also have reflexes checked and undergo blood draws or provide a urine sample.

Wellness visits explained

A wellness visit will also review a patient’s medical and family history and confirm essential health metrics such as weight, height, and blood pressure. But these types of visits focus less on general physical exams and instead prioritize making adjustments to prescriptions or scheduling future exams or preventative screenings. For example, a physician may recommend prescription drug alternatives such as a generic version during a wellness visit, which could save a patient money. Similarly, a physician may perform cognitive wellness screenings or focus on mental health concerns.

What’s the difference between the two appointments?

Physical exams and wellness visits can seem different names for the same process, but there is a distinction. Wellness visits usually lack the core aspects of a thorough physical, opting instead just for basic vitals such as height, weight, and blood pressure. Plus, two appointments are treated differently by insurers. Specifically for Medicare subscribers, an annual wellness visit is fully covered through the benefits program. In contrast, a physical exam is usually covered through private insurance but not by Medicare. While trying to draw a line between the two doctor’s appointments can seem like semantics, knowing the difference can prevent sticker shock when the appointment is over.

Do patients need both?

Over the years, physicians have expressed concern over mandating that patients engage in an annual physical exam. The concern centers around an increased risk of false-positive tests, over-testing, and of course, the associated costs which are passed down to the patients. Before deciding whether or not an annual physical exam is needed, patients should speak with a primary care provider. A physician can provide an informed recommendation based on a patient’s medical history.