7 Questions to Ask Your Doctor for a Better Checkup
By DR. MALCOLM THALER
You feel fine, but you haven't seen your doctor in well over a year, so you figure it's time to drop by for a wellness visit. In a previous article, we discussed the lack of evidence that an annual physical exam will make you healthier or live longer. But a primary reason for that is because too many health care providers and patients rely on a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to the annual checkup.
If you can tailor the visit to your particular needs and concerns, then you'll likely avoid pointless lab and imaging tests and instead get answers to questions that can genuinely impact your well-being. It's important to find a doctor who takes the time to get to know you and understands your health goals. But as the patient, you should also know the right questions to ask when you step through that exam door.
1. What vaccines should I get?
With the possible exception of the discovery and development of antibiotics, nothing has helped to improve the health of everyone on this planet more than the widespread use of vaccines. From polio to hepatitis, measles to meningitis, vaccines save lives and prevent often-devastating diseases.
Your provider should have a copy of your vaccine record (if not, bring your own copy), and depending on your age and other factors unique to you, such as whether you are pregnant or immunosuppressed, make sure you're up to date on all appropriate vaccines.
2. What screening tests should I get?
Detecting diseases early is a good way to catch things before they become serious and while they're treatable. Unfortunately, screening only works well for some diseases (e.g., cervical cancer, colon cancer) and not so well for others (e.g., prostate cancer).
[Read More: Why Breast Cancer Screening Is So Important]
Which tests are appropriate and beneficial for you will depend on your age, sex, family history and overall health status. Screening is a prime example where one size does not fit all. In fact, it's possible and all too common to be overscreened, undergoing pointless tests that are expensive and more likely to pick up false positives than true disease, leading to more unnecessary tests, often invasive procedures and a ton of anxiety -- all for anomalies that would never have otherwise harmed you.
3. Do I really need all these tests?
Again, fight the impulse to get every test under the sun. A resting EKG or chest X-ray, to name just two common examples, will be pretty much useless unless you're experiencing chest pain or shortness of breath.
4. What lifestyle changes do I need to make?
Diet, exercise, smoking, drinking and drug use have a tremendous impact on our lives, and our understanding of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle is constantly changing as we learn more. Do you know what you should be eating or what the latest research says about how much exercise you need? Your provider can guide you to the healthiest approach to managing your own health.
5. What supplements should I be taking?
The answer is probably none, but that doesn't stop people from looking for that magic bullet. There's a lot of data available on supplements -- from fish oil and homeopathic preparations to vitamin C and vitamin D. Do you know which of these make sense for you? Do you know the possible side effects? Do they interact with each other or with medications you may be taking? Now is the time to find out.
[Read More: Is Taking a Multivitamin Worth It?]
6. Am I on the right medications?
Many Americans, by the time they reach adulthood, are taking at least one prescription drug -- if not daily, then at least on an "as needed" basis. Your personal pharmacy should be regularly reevaluated in order to ensure that you're taking only those pills that will actually help you and avoiding others that are either pointless or even potentially harmful.
Too many people who start a medication continue to take it past the point of usefulness out of clinical inertia; this is not good medicine. Almost daily, the medical literature is filled with studies evaluating current and future therapies and finding new and safer approaches to managing risk factors and diseases, including common ones like diabetes and hypertension. You want to make certain your prescriptions are state of the art when it comes to these potent medications.
7. How often do I need to come in?
Your relationship with your health care provider might begin with a single visit, but it doesn't end there. Perhaps you're healthy and only need to come in every couple of years for a checkup, or maybe your visit revealed things that should be followed and monitored.
No matter what the state of your health, don't leave the office without a plan: One of the best ways to ensure good health is to communicate clearly with your provider so that together you can work to maximize your quality and quantity of life.
Readers -- Do you ask questions during your doctor visits? Do you and your doctor discuss a wide range of health topics, including prevention and lifestyle issues? Do you feel comfortable questioning your doctor about his or her decisions? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Malcolm Thaler, M.D., is a physician at One Medical Group. He enjoys being on the front lines of patient care and managing diagnostic and therapeutic challenges with a compassionate, integrative approach that stresses close doctor-patient collaboration. He is the author and chief editor of several best-selling medical textbooks and online resources and has extensive expertise in managing a wide range of issues, including the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and sports injuries.
Thaler graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College, received his M.D. from Duke University and completed his residency in internal medicine at Harvard's New England Deaconess Hospital and Temple University Hospital. He joined One Medical from his national award-winning internal medicine practice in Pennsylvania and was an attending physician at The Bryn Mawr Hospital since 1986. He is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.