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What does a standard check-up involve?

July 6, 2021 • read

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What does a standard check-up involve?

Almost 15% of Canadians don’t have a family doctor. Whether you’re part of this group or not, it may have been a while since you made the trip to your physician’s office. For many, doctor visits are few and far between unless there is a specific issue that requires care. This can make it easy to forget what a standard check-up includes. Regardless of which category you fall into, here’s what to expect at your next check-up.

How often should you see your doctor for a check-up?

You may feel like regular check-ups are important from a preventative standpoint, but depending on where you live, you might not be able to see your doctor unless you have an urgent concern. Each province has their own guidelines on how frequently you need a full-body work up. Some, like British Columbia, don’t allow for annual physician check-ups. Other provinces limit them to once a year unless you have an underlying medical issue. While this might feel restrictive, it shouldn’t prevent your doctor from providing appropriate medical care. In general, the guidelines are flexible enough to allow you and your doctor to make visits as frequent or infrequent as needed. 

How often should children see their doctor?

While you might not need to see your doctor every year, this doesn’t apply to children under 18. Development progresses at a rapid pace in the first years of life, making frequent check-ups key for both infants and younger children. Your baby’s doctor is one of their first contacts — they’ll need to see them for a well-baby visit within three to five days of their birth. Between childhood vaccinations and how often little ones get sick, you can expect about a dozen visits by the time your child reaches the age of three or four. Over the age of five, your child should continue to see their doctor for a check-up every one to two years  so you can expect to get to know your child’s pediatrician pretty well during those first few years!

What to expect during your check-up

To start, your physician will likely ask how you’re doing. If you take medication or have a pre-existing condition, they’ll want to know if you have any new symptoms or concerns regarding those. While they might not expressly ask, you should inform your clinician of any changes to your mood, mental health, or sleep patterns.

For the physical component of your check-up, a member of your healthcare team will check your blood pressure, height and weight. If you’re a certain age, you’ll likely remember previous physical examinations, where your doctor listened to your heart and lungs via stethoscope, and felt and listened to your abdomen. Times have changed, however, and current clinical practice guidelines no longer support these practices for routine screening. Any physical examination components — like listening to your heart or lungs with a stethoscope — will depend on risk factors that have come up in your medical or family history.

Focussed physical examinations like checking your vision, examining your throat, or looking in your ears with an otoscope are also off the table for the average adult. These special examinations typically only take place when there is a clinical concern involving that area of your body.

What to see your doctor for if you don’t have annual check-ups

Your doctor and their team is your entry point into most things health-related, whether you see them annually or not. They’re responsible for ordering medical tests as well as specialist referrals and can connect you with everyone from a therapist to a lactation consultant. Your primary care team is also your best resource when it comes to your reproductive health or sexual activity. They can discuss how to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and different forms of birth control. On the flip side, if you’re looking to become pregnant, your primary care team can counsel you on lifestyle adjustments, and can refer you for fertility treatment, if necessary. In some cases, they can continue to see you throughout your pregnancy. For a preventive check-up to identify risk factors you may not know about already, you can opt for a general health assessment. During your general health assessment, a Canadian-licensed doctor will let you know which areas you should focus on for your health, what to avoid, and the changes you can make to improve your overall health. 

Cancer screening as you age

Whether your province allows for annual check-ups or not, cancer screening becomes a regular occurrence as you age. The guidelines on screening for different kinds of cancer depend on a few things — from your family history and life stage, to other personal risk factors. Gender also plays a role as men and women have different guidelines. Starting at age 50, women should speak to their doctor about mammogram screening every 2-3 years and its benefits and limitations. Sexually active women should also have a Pap smear every three years — but only once they hit 25.

For men, your clinician will start talking to you about screening for prostate cancer once you hit 50 — however this could begin at age 45 if you have more risk factors. Some provinces, like British Columbia and Ontario, don’t cover the cost of the screening blood work. In these cases, patients may need to pay between $30-$50 to have the test done.

How to prepare for your check-up

It’s a good idea to go to each one of your medical appointments prepared. Make sure you bring the name and dosage of any medications you’re taking to your appointment. The best way to do this is to bring the bottles or boxes for your clinician to review. If you’ve been to a walk-in clinic, the ER, or seen any other healthcare provider since your last visit, make sure to share the details with your clinician as well. Finally, bring a written list of questions to ask your doctor so you don’t forget anything important.

Whether you go for regular check-ups, or only visit for acute concerns, you should feel comfortable with your primary care team. It’s important to share pertinent changes with your provider, whether physical or emotional. Not all issues are apparent from a check-up, and without a full picture of what’s going on in your life, your doctor might miss something important.

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