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Annual Physical Exam Checklist: How to Prepare and What To Expect

Written by 
Angela Myers
Reviewed by 
Anwar A. Jebran, MD

Article at a glance

  • An annual physical exam is important for all patients, but the exact tests and screenings depend on age, gender, and a patient’s current health. 

  • Before attending an annual physical exam, it is recommended to collect all the medical records available to you, a list of current medications, and any allergies. A patient can also write down any questions or symptoms they are experiencing. 

  • An annual physical exam is a preventative health measure. It’s important to schedule regular check-ups with a primary care physician, even if a patient has perfect health. 

A physical exam is an assessment of someone’s overall health. During this appointment, a healthcare provider diagnoses any new conditions and reviews current medical conditions. They also administer any needed vaccinations and provide insight into general health concerns, such as nutrient deficiencies, sleep troubles, mental health concerns, and more. 

Early signs of various conditions like heart disease, overactive or underactive thyroid, cervical cancer, blood clotting disorders, and more can also be identified during the physical exam.

Benefits of a Physical Exam

A physical exam is a chance to address any health concerns and monitor a patient’s physical and mental well-being. It’s a preventative measure, meaning even those in good health should schedule routine physical exams. 

While the benefits of a physical exam are many, the main ones include:

  • Assessing a patient’s overall mental and physical health

  • Administering any needed vaccinations 

  • Recommending other preventative health measures (routine screenings, dietary and lifestyle changes, new workouts). 

  • Reviewing and refilling medications. 

  • Check annual blood tests.

  • Providing a space to ask questions about healthy habits or specific health concerns

  • Developing a better relationship with a provider

A comprehensive physical exam also checks for different medical conditions that display fewer symptoms and are tricky to self-monitor. For example, without vitals check, blood work and other screenings, it’s difficult to diagnose problems with thyroid function.

Other common conditions, such as some types of cancer and high blood sugar, don’t display symptoms in their early stages. With an annual physical exam, a doctor can proactively catch these conditions earlier, allowing more time for treatment. 

Who Should Get an Annual Physical Exam?

Let’s say someone has perfect health. They haven’t gotten sick in 2023, are experiencing no aches or pains, and have high energy levels. Should they get an annual physical exam? The short answer is yes.

An annual physical exam prevents future problems. Even if a patient is in perfect health, preventative screenings are necessary to sustain good health. 

The word annual is in there for a reason. Each year, schedule at least one check-up with a primary medical provider. If a doctor recommends more regular check-ups because of a patient’s age or current health conditions, a patient should schedule more than one check-up a year.

What a Physical Exam Covers

Physical exams cover different health aspects depending on age, gender, current conditions, and a patient’s lifestyle. If a patient smokes or isn’t as active, what’s covered in a physical exam may differ from their counterparts who don’t smoke or who exercise four times a week.

Despite these differences, some routine tests occur during almost every physical:

  • Screening for diseases

  • Vaccination administration, when needed

  • Diabetes screening

  • Screening for alcohol, drugs, and tobacco use

  • Measuring vitals including blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen level, and weight

  • Screening for depression and anxiety

  • Hearing and vision test

  • Cholesterol screening

Along with these formal screenings and procedures, a medical provider will also ask questions to determine a patient’s mental and physical health. There will also be time for a patient to discuss any specific questions or problems they might be experiencing.

Adults Over 65

While health screenings are essential at any age, they are especially important for older patients, and the number of routine screenings increases with age. Additional recommended health screenings for adults over the age of 65 include osteoporosis screening (especially for women) and colon cancer screening. 

Certain routine tests, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes screening, also become more important as we age. Because of this, it’s even more important for patients over the age of 65 to get a physical exam annually.

Well-Woman Exam

A Well-Woman exam refers to an annual physical that includes tests and screenings related to conditions women may face. These gender-specific tests include a clinical breast exam (feeling underarms and breasts for any changes, such as lumps). If a patient is over 40, she should also get a mammogram. A medical provider also examines the vagina and pelvic region in a pap smear and pelvic exam.

Note: More women get an annual physical than men, but it’s an important health appointment, regardless of gender. While there isn’t a labeled Well-Man” exam, men will often be screened for prostate cancer, which a woman won’t be screened for. 

Well Child Physical Exam

As we previously discussed, what’s covered in an annual physical exam depends on a variety of factors, including age. Since childhood is a time of change and quick growth, there is a specific procedure for these appointments.

Commonly referred to as a well child physical exam,” an annual check-up for patients between the ages of 0 and 18 includes:

  • Checking if developmental milestones for specific ages have been reached. To learn more about developmental milestones, visit this link.

  • Nutrition and physical activity advice that’s appropriate for a child’s specific age.

  • The administration of more vaccinations than during adult physical exams. 

  • Testing the deep tendon reflexes of older children and infantile reflexes for younger patients.

A Well Child exam also provides information on what parents should expect as a child develops and information on common childhood diseases.

Sports Physical vs Annual Checkup

If you have a child or grandchild – or play a professional sport yourself – a sports physical may be recommended. This routine exam checks the physical fitness of a patient. During a sports physical, a provider also checks for injuries and conditions that may increase someone’s chance of injury, such as muscular dystrophy.

On the surface, this seems similar to an annual physical exam. While a sports physical often contains many of the same tests, such as a vision test, it doesn’t take the place of an annual exam. 

Sometimes, a medical professional may perform both in the same appointment, but the keyword here is both. Even if someone requires a sports physical, they should still receive an annual exam as well. 

5 Ways to Prepare for an Annual Physical Exam

When preparing for a doctor’s visit, there are a few things to consider, especially if the appointment is an annual physical exam. Because these exams are used to identify and prevent problems before they manifest, there are some documents and information to gather beforehand. 

#1: Write down current health problems and allergies

Before a physical, take inventory of the current health situation. If a patient experiences any symptoms or irregular health signs, such as muscle aches, they should write them down. A patient should also add any allergies to their list of health concerns. 

#2: Review health history

The past can paint a picture of the future, especially when it comes to health. Before an annual physical, search the family health history for any hereditary diseases, such as breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes or bipolar disorder. 

A patient should also look into their personal medical history. This includes medications they are currently taking or have used in the past. Health devices, such as a pacemaker or CPAP machine, that a patient is using or has used in the past should also be noted. Whenever applicable, write down the exact dosage. 

#3: Research what health insurance covers

Health insurance covers different parts of a physical, depending on the plan type. For example, one patient’s insurance might cover blood work while others won’t cover blood tests unless a specialist orders it. 

To minimize surprise costs, review your health insurance policy before an annual physical.

#4: Collect the names of specialists

If a patient sees specialists, they should write down their names and phone numbers in case specialty-specific issues come up during the appointment. Specialists can include but are not limited to, ophthalmologists, gynecologists, oncologists, dermatologists, and immunologists. 

#5: Prepare any questions or health goals

An annual physical is a time to discuss any concerns or health goals with a primary care physician. To get the most out of an annual exam, prepare questions for the physical exam or health goals to discuss with a provider. 

Note: Before heading to a physical exam, make sure to check out these additional 18 tips on preparing for a doctor’s visit.

Medicare and Annual Physicals

While these screenings are important, check what is and isn’t included on an insurance plan before a physical. For adults over the age of 65 who are covered by Medicare, a physical isn’t covered under Medicare, but a yearly wellness visit and a Welcome to Medicare visit are. 

Both these appointments are similar to a physical, but they focus more on preventative health and have fewer physical tests, such as the reflex test or the ability to take urine and blood samples. Both also include a cognitive test, which isn’t a part of a traditional physical. 

It’s still important to take advantage of the yearly wellness visit covered under your insurance (after all, it’s free). Just be sure to check with your insurance provider before the visit to avoid any added out-of-pocket costs or fees.

What To Expect During a Physical Exam

Before attending a physical, it’s normal to feel anxious about what this appointment will cover. To clear any anxiety, here’s what to expect during a physical exam:

  • A primary care provider will take routine measurements, such as height and weight, and record vital signs.

  • From there, they will review a patient’s personal and family history to see if there are any health risks. They may also discuss any physical or mental health symptoms or problems they may be experiencing. 

  • Depending on what preventive care needs to be done, they may complete preventive screenings. They may also order a urine or blood test depending on a patient’s age, gender, and current health. 

  • Your PCP will review your medications and send you the necessary refills.

  • During a physical examination, there’s also a chance to ask any questions about general healthy living or address any current symptoms.

The exact order of these tasks and what exactly each entails can vary greatly, depending on the physician’s preferences and the patient. However, most annual exams cover these four points.

After the Physical Exam

If a provider orders blood tests or other screenings with delayed results, follow-up may be required. For example, if blood test results show a low white blood cell count, a doctor may call the patient to schedule a follow-up appointment or refer them to a specialist. 

Patients should be aware that a doctor may call them after a physical exam with follow-up steps, especially if additional tests are ordered. Furthermore, many practices now have an online portal where patients can set up an account, access their post-exam notes, and message their doctor with any lingering questions. 

FAQ

What items are included in a physical exam?

A physical exam will cover different aspects depending on a patient’s age, gender, and medical history. Generally speaking, a physical exam includes reviewing health history, measuring vitals (such as blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels), conducting any needed screenings, such as colon cancer screening, and assessing a patient's overall physical and mental well-being. A medical provider may also recommend additional tests or lifestyle changes during a physical exam.

What not to do before a physical exam test?

During a physical exam, there’s a chance a doctor will order tests and screenings. For the most accurate results, limit caffeine and alcohol consumption before a physical. If blood work is required, a medical provider may also prohibit eating or drinking for eight to twelve hours before blood tests.

How do you prepare for a physical?

To prepare for a physical, gather any information on family medical history, create a list of current medications, and write down any questions for the doctor.

What to wear to a physical?

There’s nothing specific to wear to a physical, though patients should dress for comfort. If a patient is receiving any vaccines, a short-sleeve shirt or loose-fitting shirt can make it easier to administer the vaccine. Depending on health needs, a patient may be asked to wear a medical gown.

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