DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I am a 33-year-old woman and have never had any health problems, so I don’t have a doctor that I regularly see. My husband has health issues and feels I should at least go to the doctor every year for a general exam. I don’t feel it’s necessary. How often should healthy individuals go to the doctor?
ANSWER: You don’t necessarily need to be seen on an annual basis if you’re doing well and don’t have any health concerns. It would be a good idea, however, to establish a primary health care provider for yourself. Then, make an appointment to see that provider to review the preventive screening tests and exams you need, and to decide how often you should have them done.
The specific tests that are most useful for you depend a great deal on your age, family history and health history. For example, a Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer is recommended every three years for most women in their 20s. When you reach your 30s and beyond, the recommendation for that test changes, in general, to every three to five years. Your cervical cancer screening with a Pap smear also is based largely on your previous results. If you’ve had an abnormal finding on a recent Pap smear, then you may need the test more often.
The same is true for many other preventive exams, such as mammograms, cholesterol testing and diabetes screening. Your personal medical history and family history, along with your preferences and what you value, need to be considered as you decide on the timing of these screenings. In many cases, trying to wade through the recommended schedules for these tests on your own can be confusing. In addition, the advice one organization offers about screening timetables sometimes conflicts with another’s recommendations.
That’s where a discussion with your health care provider can be particularly useful. Together you can sort out what’s appropriate for you and set a schedule of tests that fits your situation. In some cases, an annual checkup to take care of those tests and exams might make sense. In others, it may be several years between appointments, or you may need to been seen more frequently.
Establishing care with a health care provider and his or her team also allows them to touch base with you on your overall well-being and for you to build a relationship with them. That gives you an opportunity to have your team discuss life issues you may be dealing with that can have an effect on your health, such as stress, job transitions, loss, divorce or other major changes. They can talk with you about how you’re coping. They can also help you navigate those issues by offering referrals to support services and, if needed, treatment for related concerns, such as sleep problems, grief management, anxiety or depression.
Another benefit to having a primary health care provider is you can take advantage of the services they offer in addition to office visits. Many health care organizations now have secure email access that patients can use to communicate with their health care team. They also may be able to direct you to websites and other online resources that they have created or have been deemed reliable. In addition, nurses and other team members may be available to you by phone to answer questions, as well as triage more urgent health concerns
Remember, too, there’s quite a bit you can do to stay healthy in between visits to your health care provider. As much as possible, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, find ways to work physical activity into your daily routines, don’t smoke and enjoy life. Those lifestyle choices all have a significant and lasting impact on your long-term health. — Dr. Summer Allen, Family Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota