7 Tips To Get The Most Out of Your Annual Exam

Mache Seibel, MD

Your annual exam is one of the most important things you will do this year. It’s your time to discuss your current health status and health goals for the coming year, and an opportunity to find out how you can best stay well. It’s your opportunity to make a wellness plan with your healthcare provider.  Since the average time with a doctor is only about 8 minutes, it’s essential to have your questions and information organized ahead of time to get the most out of your visit. Here’s what you should know.

1. Understand Wellness!

A lot of time we think of wellness as the absence of illness. Wellness is much more than not being sick. If you do the right things and make the right kinds of choices, wellness is something you can help to make happen. In fact, staying well is up to you. Over the past few decades, Americans are allowing themselves to gain more weight, to be more stressed, exercise less, and sleep fewer hours. We also eat an enormous amount of sugar, saturated fats, and trans-fats or partially hydrogenated fats. And all of this has led to soaring amounts of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. As a result, we are now seeing the first generation of individuals who are having children that likely won’t live as long as their parents. On a scale of 1 to 10, you don’t realize you are ill until you reach 7. By then, you are already clinically ill. So wellness is not just about an absence of being sick; it’s about taking the necessary steps to be healthier both physically and emotionally before it becomes illness. Here are 7 tips for your Annual Exam so you don’t get to 7+ on the wellness/illness scale. It’s the secret of staying well.

2. Bring some essentials with you.

  • Bring a notebook or a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.

Most people are anxious when they go to their doctor and often forget what to ask or what the doctor tells them. Write down your questions and write down the doctor’s answers and recommendations.

  • Bring a friend or family member.

It can be very helpful to have an extra set of ears to listen to information and to make sure you get the information you need to optimize your wellness. Friends and family can be asked to leave during an exam to avoid an awkward situation becoming, but having them there for any discussions can be very reassuring.

3. Do Your Homework.

  • Review your medical history and your family’s medical history before your visit.

Most doctors ask you to fill out an updated medical history form before your exam.  To make this easier, plan ahead and bring a personal and family medical history with you or ask for their form ahead of time.

List any family members who have been diagnosed with cancer or other illness since your last annual exam. If this is the first time seeing this doctor, list any member of your immediate family with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or any other illnesses, especially try to remember any conditions that may run in your family or any that could be contagious.

  • Bring a list of all your medications and their dosages. Be sure to include any over-the-counter medications, herbal preparations, vitamins and supplements. People often forget to mention dietary supplements and over-the-counter medications when their doctor asks them what they are taking. These are important because they may interfere with prescription medications or have other effects.
  • Bring a list all of the doctors and health care providers that treat you and when you last saw them. Make sure to include their telephone numbers and addresses so your health care provider can communicate with them and coordinate your care.

Be sure to include people from complementary and alternative medicine such as physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, massage and any other type of healer.  A large percentage of people forget to tell their primary care physician about alternative therapies they are receiving, and this makes it difficult for them to get a complete picture of your current health status and potential.

4. Four more things to ask about at your annual exam.

  • Make a list of the things that are most worrying you. Because most people are particularly anxious or embarrassed about certain things, they wait until they are about to leave to talk about them, and there is no time left for discussion. Get those out first so there is plenty of time. If there isn’t enough time at this visit, now you’ve got the subject out in the open and you can schedule a follow up time to have a more complete discussion when you won’t be rushed.
  • List any physical or emotional difficulties you have been experiencing.
  • List the questions you want to remember to ask your doctor.
  • Tell your doctor about any foreign travel in the past year or any future plans.

We are becoming a much more global community with lots of travel. Many countries require specific immunizations so visitors won’t catch contagious diseases while they visit a particular region of the world. This is also a good time to ask if you need any routine immunizations such as your tetanus shot or flu shot. Depending on your age, health or other risk factors, you might also benefit from immunizations for HPV, shingles, or one of a growing list of others.

5. Discuss weight control with your doctor.

  • Ask what your BMI is and whether you need to work to change it.

The BMI or Body Mass Index uses your height and weight to calculate if you are over or under weight or just right. If yours is too high or too low, talk with your doctor about a plan to become a more ideal weight. Ask your doctor what resources are available in the hospital or community to help you. This may involve a health coach or organized weight management program. There are also Apps available for your phone or computer and an increasing number of programs at work and in the community. Studies show that keeping track of your information and reporting it back to a person or group gets the highest levels of success.  Social elements are important, so find out how to get involved.

6. Common topics people avoid, but shouldn’t.

It’s normal. Everyone has something that causes embarrassment or makes them feel awkward. Your doctor probably won’t think it’s embarrassing, though. Even if a topic seems really personal, or uncomfortable, try to talk about. Once you do, it’s usually the beginning of getting better. Here are some common topics people avoid but shouldn’t.

  • Urinary incontinence.

Studies have shown that 1 out of 3 women have difficulty with urinary incontinence (loss of urine), but it takes 3-5 years for most women to work up the courage to talk about it with their doctor. If this is a problem you are having, you are not alone.  To make the most of your annual exam, you can keep a chart of how much fluid you are drinking in a day, how many times you urinate in a 24 hour period, and how any times you leak urine during a 24 hour period.  If you keep a log of this for a week, your doctor will be in a good position to advise you how to best deal with this common issue.

  • Domestic Violence is another topic that people often feel is off limits.  Some studies show that nearly 1 in 3 adult women experience assault by a partner sometime in adulthood. If you are suffering from domestic violence, talk to your doctor. Get help.
  • Erectile dysfunction can be awkward and difficult for men to discuss.  Although the frequency of Viagra commercials has made the topic more mainstream, many men are hesitant to talk about it.  This is important information to share because in addition to the impact on one’s sex life, erectile dysfunction may be a sign of arterial disease or other medical conditions. It may also be a sign of Andropause or Male Menopause.

7. Ask about your sleep. Not enough may be killing you.

If poor sleep is a problem for you, tell your doctor. Poor sleep is a major issue for 70 million American adults. It contributes to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and many more medical conditions. Most adults need about 7-8-hours of sleep a night to function optimally and to stay well.  There are many reasons people have difficulties sleeping, from anxiety, depression, and stress to medications, medical problems, urinary problems, uncomfortable sleeping conditions, too much caffeine, alcohol, and restless leg…the list goes on and on.

To help you figure out what’s contributing to your sleep disturbance, keep a sleep log and bring it to your exam.  Write down the time you go to bed, how long it takes to fall asleep, how many times you wake up during the night, what time you wake up in the morning.  Also note if you take any naps during the day.  If you do this for a couple of weeks before your exam, your doctor will offer some information to help you.  Your may be asked if your partner says you that you snore loudly every night – it could be a sign of sleep apnea.


Your annual exam is a special time. You have your healthcare provider’s undivided attention. Get the most out of your visit; be prepared. Realize that to live a long and healthy life, you’ve got to get involved in the process of staying well. Bring your questions, your lists, and your most pressing issues. Use this as an opportunity to make the changes you need to accomplish to optimize your health.

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