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Even when healthy, some people religiously head to the doctor every year for a physical exam, which is often covered by health insurance.
But a new review from Danish researchers concludes there is little benefit to such routine exams on healthy people.
The researchers analyzed information from 183,000 people who took part in 14 trials carried out in Europe and the United States. In all the trials, participants were randomly assigned to either receive a routine health check — involving screening tests, a physical exam, or advice about lifestyle changes — or not receive one.
Results showed patients who received routine health checks were just as likely to die over a nine-year period compared with those who did not receive health checks. Routine health checks also had no effect on hospital admission rates, patient worry, referrals to specialists or time off work.
The findings suggest "general health checks are unlikely to be beneficial," the researchers write in the October issue of the journal the Cochrane Library.
The study's overall conclusions agree with those of previous research, which has found little evidence that annual physicals have any value, said Dr. Doug Campos-Outcalt, chairman of Family, Community and Preventive Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
"A [yearly] physical exam is a pretty meaningless thing to have done," Campos-Outcalt said.
However, going to the doctor for a specific screening test or vaccine is another matter. In these cases, doctors' visits are beneficial for healthy people, Campos-Outcalt said. But he added that many screening tests, including colonoscopies and mammograms, do not need to be performed every year.
Eliminating annual physicals would save money partly because it would reduce unnecessary testing, Campos-Outcalt said.
Making a habit of going to the doctor every year may be easier for some people to remember than going every four or five years, Campos-Outcalt said, but electronic health records and patient reminders could solve that problem.
People with conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes may see their doctor yearly, or more frequently, depending on the severity of their condition, Campos-Outcalt said.
Routine health checks may not have a benefit because doctors are able to identify health problems or disease risk factors when they see their patients for other reasons, the researchers said.
Because some of the trials in the new study took place many years ago, in the '60s and '70s, the findings may be less applicable to today's health care settings, the researchers said. Of the 14 studies, six started in the 1960s, three in the 1970s, two in the 1980s and three in the 1990s.
Pass it on: Routine health checks are unlikely to be beneficial for healthy people.