Know Before You Go: Routine Physical

Doctor with patient in clinic consulting

Even doctors like me don’t always look forward to our routine physicals, but they are truly one of the best ways to safeguard our health. Use my personal tips to be proactive about your health and get the most out of your next visit.

Who can perform a routine physical?
All doctors have been trained in how to perform a routine physical, but specialists usually stop performing them regularly after they specialize in a particular type of medicine, such as cardiology or OB/Gyn. Primary care professionals, including general internal medicine physicians, pediatricians and family physicians, as well as some nurse practitioners and physician assistants provide the vast majority of routine physicals. Internal medicine physicians primarily treat adults, pediatricians only treat children and family medicine doctors treat people of all ages.

How should I prepare for my physical?
Since the doctor has many routine questions he or she must ask, come prepared so you can speed through questions that aren’t as relevant to you and spend more time on your specific concerns. Here are some tips on what you can do before you step into the office to get the most from your visit:

  • Call ahead. Ask if your doctor’s office accepts your insurance and be clear on how much you will need to pay personally for the visit. Ask what services your doctor can provide – some general practitioners can also provide pelvic exams and Pap smears, potentially saving you an extra doctor’s visit. Ask if you will need routine blood work so you know if you should fast or hold off on taking certain medications before coming.
  • Keep a list of your questions and concerns. Order them from most to least important – even if you don’t have time to get to them all, the most important ones will be addressed and you can schedule a follow-up for the remaining issues. Be open and honest with your questions – there is no question too embarrassing to bring up.
  • Bring an up-to-date list of your medications, including their names, doses, how often you take them, and what time you take them. Also include any supplements or over-the-counter medications that you take. Even better, bring both a list and a bag of your medications with you so that your doctor can double check exactly what you are taking.\
  • Know your family’s medical history. Your doctor will want to know if your parents, siblings and children are still living and if they have any health problems (especially heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or cancer). To help you remember all of the specifics, keep a document of your family’s medical issues up to date and bring it with you to the appointment.

What should I expect once I am there?
The doctor will begin with a medical history, which includes questions about any present concerns, past medical history, medications, family health history, questions about your life at home and work and sexual health. They may also conduct what is called a review of systems, when they list many specific symptoms to see if you have recently had any of them. Expect a head to toe physical exam, which may or may not include a pelvic and breast exam or a rectal exam, depending on your gender, age and whether you have another provider who performs those for you. You can also ask your doctor to perform a skin exam to check for suspicious moles. The doctor may also order blood work or vaccines based on what is recommended for your age, gender and specific health history.

Don’t be surprised if…
Doctors are trained to ask a variety of questions that may feel very personal, because they are often relevant to your overall health. Do not be surprised if your doctor asks you about your smoking history, alcohol use or drug use. A routine sexual history should be taken at every physical, and may include questions about whether you are sexually active, numbers of sexual partners, sexual orientation, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and birth control and safe sex practices. Your doctor may also ask you questions about whether you feel safe at home or in a current relationship, or whether you have ever been physically or emotionally abused.

These are very routine questions that doctors generally ask all their patients, so do not feel that you are being singled out. If you feel uncomfortable with a question, tell your doctor and he or she may be able to explain why they are asking and reassure you that you do not need to say anything you are not comfortable sharing. Your doctor will always keep what you tell him or her confidential, unless you give permission for him or her to share information with others or if he or she believes you may harm yourself or someone else.

How long will it take? And how often do I need one?
The length of routine physicals varies widely based on your specific health, whether your doctor knows you well, what tests or procedures are necessary and your doctor’s personal style. Generally expect a full history and exam to take somewhere between 15 to 45 minutes.

How often you need a full physical depends on your health and what your doctor recommends – always ask your doctor when you should schedule your next physical.