Prevention & Recovery

Physical exams: What to expect

By: Tara Nolan

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

Physical exams: What to expect

By: Tara Nolan
With the media constantly bombarding us with the results of this or that medical study and endless websites offering the ability to self-diagnose, it's no wonder Canadians book a yearly checkup to make sure their body is running as it should be. In fact, according to a 2008 StatsCan survey, 63 per cent of those who regularly go for physical exams do it for the sense of reassurance it provides.

How often a person sees his or her doctor for a physical can depend on the patient's age and gender. For the average person who's in good health, Dr. Jonathan Kerr, a family physician in Belleville, Ont., recommends scheduling a physical every one to two years.

Keeping in mind that different doctors will have a different method and style to conducting an appointment, here is a general guide to what you can expect at your next physical.

Set a date and arrive prepared
When you call to make your appointment tell the receptionist the reason for your visit is for a physical. Knowing this, your doctor will generally set aside about 30 minutes to meet with you. You should bring any questions you may have for your doctor about your health. Kerr also recommends you bring a list of all the medication and supplements you are taking. This is especially important if other doctors have prescribed something your family doctor may be unaware of.

If you are seeing a new doctor for the first time, you should try to have any previous medical records sent over prior to your exam. You may be charged a small photocopying fee, says Kerr, but it's worth it, since this information will help your new doctor understand your medical history.

Once you get to your appointment, a nurse may take your blood pressure, height and weight while you wait. And once you're seated in a private examination room, you may be asked to disrobe and put on a gown.

A two-part appointment
There are two elements to an appointment: the talking portion and your physical exam. "An annual checkup is a great time to go through your laundry list of issues," says Kerr, who believes the time spent talking to your doctor is the most important part of the exam. This is where you will not only discuss physical symptoms you may be experiencing, but also any changes in your life, such as stress, weight issues, a new medication, a death in the family or divorce.

Page 1 of 2 – Find out what to expect beyond the physical exam on page 2.
Prior to meeting with a patient, Kerr will have them fill out a questionnaire in the waiting room where they can circle any symptoms and answer basic questions about their health. This helps to set an agenda for the appointment and, in some cases, help lead Kerr in the direction of a diagnosis.

It's likely your doctor will want to review your medications and supplements to make sure you are being properly treated for any medical conditions.

A general checkup

If a nurse hasn't already taken your blood pressure and weight, the doctor will check these vital signs, and will listen to your heart and lungs for any abnormalities. This may be followed by an examination of your head and neck, your eyes, ears and mouth and your reflexes. The doctor may ask if you have noticed any changes in your skin's appearance, such as a new freckle or mole.

Beyond the general checkup
As part of your head-to-toe exam, a doctor may do a breast exam, checking for lumps and abnormalities. Your physical may also include an internal exam. For women who are due for both a Pap smear and a physical, Kerr suggests scheduling them together. Ask your doctor for advice on how often you should have a Pap smear done.

Possible screening tests
If you're between the ages of 40 and 70 you will notice a lot of screening tests taking place, explains Kerr, as "these are the key years when you can prevent diseases from taking control of your life." With his female patients, Kerr will ask when her last Pap smear was and, depending on her age, discuss mammograms, bone scans and colon cancer screening. "Those health screening questions lay the framework for our game plan in the coming months," he says.

Possible blood work
A physical will not always involve blood tests, says Kerr. The need for blood work will depend on the age and symptoms of a patient. For example, he may order a test to check the thyroid or hemoglobin in a patient who has exhibited certain symptoms. Kerr prefers to monitor for diabetes and check the cholesterol of his patients who are between the ages of 50 and 70 every couple of years. General blood work will likely test for urinalysis, blood count and a chemical panel.

It's important to be proactive about your health and to tell your doctor about any abnormalities you may be experiencing. A routine physical plays a part in keeping you on a path to good health.

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Prevention & Recovery

Physical exams: What to expect