What exactly is preventive care?

It may seem counterintuitive to go see your doctor when you’re feeling well. But a yearly checkup is one of the best ways to help stay as healthy and vibrant as possible.

Most health plans cover annual wellness visits. These yearly checkups are what’s known as preventive care. Preventive care also covers screening tests and advice from a primary care provider (PCP).1 It’s how providers focus on keeping people healthy and catching illnesses earlier, before they progress and become larger problems. And it’s one of the best ways to help improve your well-being.

Routine wellness visits may be different for everybody. Some include common screening tests. Other tests and advice will depend on your health and age. A PCP can help you focus on the preventive measures that will be most effective for you, says Jay W. Lee, M.D., a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of California, Irvine.

Here’s a closer look at each part of preventive care and how each plays a role in keeping you healthier.

Routine checkups: preventing chronic conditions

Roughly 60% of adults in the United States have a chronic disease, such as diabetes, cancer, or heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).2 While not all conditions can be avoided, seeing a PCP regularly can go a long way to preventing certain illnesses.

Early visits are a good way for a PCP to check in on any screening tests you may need that year. They can also review your records to see if you are up to date on shots. PCPs typically take time to talk to people about their daily habits. This includes talking to you about a balanced diet and regular physical activity. Both are effective ways to help prevent chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.3

When Dr. Lee talks to his patients about healthy living, he often focuses on diet and exercise, as well as sleep, “which is critical for maintaining good brain function as we age,” he says. He also brings up the importance of mental health and social connections. “There’s an increasing body of evidence showing how unhealthy social isolation can be,” he says.4

These lifestyle tweaks can help boost your health and longevity.

Screening tests: finding a disease in its earliest stage

Preventive care also includes the recommended screenings you’ll get throughout your life. Some, such as blood pressure checks, you’ll get often. Others you may only need every few years.

The goal is to catch things early, while they’re easier to treat and less likely to cause health complications. “It’s remarkable how many times a screening test catches something early enough that we can cure it or get way ahead on treatment,” Dr. Lee says.

Routine screening tests may include:5

  • Monitoring height and weight
  • Blood pressure checks
  • Blood tests to check cholesterol and blood sugar levels
  • Screening for cancers, such as breast cancer (mammogram), prostate cancer, cervical cancer (pelvic exam and Pap smear) and colon cancer (colonoscopy)
  • Checking for sexually transmitted infections
  • Testicular exams
  • Prostate checks
  • Bone density scans
  • Dental exams
  • Full-body skin checks
  • Eye exams

Some of these screening tests will be done at the PCP’s office. Others, such as screening for cancers and dental exams, will be done by other providers. A PCP can help you keep on top of these tests.

PCP counseling: managing conditions

“Ultimately, as family physicians, our goal is to prevent you from getting sick,” says Dr. Lee. “But if you do develop a chronic illness like diabetes or high blood pressure, our goal is to prevent those diseases from further damaging your body,” he says.

At the annual wellness visit, a PCP may ask you about the medicines you take and other providers you see. PCPs can also order additional tests if they suspect a problem based on family or health history.6

In that way, PCPs help manage your condition and reduce your risk of longer-term complications such as blindness, kidney failure, heart attack or stroke. It’s important to follow your treatment plan, and you should never hesitate to ask questions if you’re confused about any part of the plan, says Dr. Lee.

If you’re one of the many Americans who are behind on their doctor visits,7 “Now’s the time to reach out, schedule those appointments, and get back on track,” he says.

Get a preventive care checklist

Wondering what to expect at your appointment? Check out our preventive care checklist covering common tests and screenings for your age and gender.

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