Every Year, Physically Speaking

I like going to see the doctor.  That wasn’t always the case for me, so I understand people who don’t.  It has never been more clear in American public policy how important the annual physical is than it is now.  And that is to say it has not been made clear enough and policy makers need to double down on it.

This morning I read a column on the topic in the Indianapolis Business Journal written by Brose McVey, CEO of Expedite Health Solutions.  In his column, McVey writes in detail about preventive care and its affordability.  He writes: “Preventive care is inexpensive, while chronic disease treatments and emergency-room visits are not.  Enlightened employers and (health) plans might avoid increased exposure by finding a way to encourage primary care and prevention.”

Exactly.  Well, I had my annual physical this week, and I know my readers are dying to know how I am.

Ten years ago I was incredibly less healthy than I am today.  I hate writing that because no matter what I do to take care of myself now, the one thing I can’t do is be younger.  I also can’t be taller, which makes the measuring of my height the most irritating part of my annual checkup, even though it is the one moment of the year that my posture is at its absolute best.  But as a former smoker, drinker and championship eater, going to the doctor these days is more of a celebration of my healthy lifestyle.  It wasn’t that long ago that the physical was a scary hour in the principal’s office to get a good scolding at a minimum, with a real possibility of terrible news being delivered to a real problem patient.

In retrospect, I largely got away with the unhealthy lifestyle of my youth.  And I am glad that I no longer roll the dice with my personal health in between physicals.  But one thing that surprised me this week was that my physical came with no out of pocket expense at all.  I vividly remember having a co-pay before the Affordable Care Act, and I also remember paying next to nothing for an extended hospital stay in 2009.  Times have certainly changed.

The annual physical is preventive health care in which every American should engage.  According to a poll published by the Kaiser Family Foundation in November of 2014, 92 percent of Americans believe that an annual, head to toe physical exam is important. However, only 62 percent of those polled reported receiving an exam every year.  This is a problem in my opinion, but not everyone’s.

The Society for General Internal Medicine has put annual physicals on its list of things doctors should avoid giving to healthy adults. Apparently there are doctors, and presumably financial analysts, who believe going to the doctor when a patient feels well is a giant waste of money.  It is reported that at an average cost of $150 per physical, America’s annual cost is approximately $10 billion.  Could our healthcare system save some money by eliminating the cost of physicals like the one I just had?  Of course.  Am I any more healthy now that a doctor told me so than I was before he told me?  Of course not.  But preventive health strategies absolutely work better for society as a whole than emergency room visits and chronic disease treatments following a late diagnosis.

Preventive health care is cheaper than the alternative.  That doesn’t mean it is free, just cheaper.

One problem with the doctors in the “healthy patient physicals are a waste of money” crowd is that the average American isn’t the best person to decide whether or not he or she is actually healthy.  I didn’t look unhealthy to most people ten years ago, and most men in their thirties would rather ignore pain and friendly advice then run off to the doctor like a sissy.  I am glad I grew out of that.

I needed my doctor to help me improve my lifestyle from a completely irresponsible approach, to one that will keep me out of the hospital longer than most of my peers over the next twenty or thirty years.  I now spend a portion of every day exercising, reading about healthy choices and paying attention to my own habits.  My annual physical is an integral part of my way of life.

Having written all of that, I also realize that everyone is different.  What was once difficult for me I am sure is still difficult for many people.  But one thing that isn’t all that difficult is getting to your doctor for a physical once a year.  It really is nothing but a simple choice.

Mr. McVey is absolutely correct about primary care and prevention.  And I would love to hear more from anyone who thinks this preventive strategy is a waste of money.  I’m sure insurers would love for us to pay our premiums and resist using the services that are included in the price.

Let’s face it, the annual physical is the cheapest insurance policy on the market right now. Even for the uninsured.  We should all buy one.  If we could give gift certificates for them to friends and families, we should.

Nothing good comes from not going to the doctor regularly.  Ignorance is not bliss in this case.  And the drain on the healthcare system my good news visit caused this week was worth every penny.