Yearly Health Exams Cost Billions, Don't Improve Health

Annual checkups cost the nation billions while yielding virtually no health benefits, argues Ezekiel J. Emanuel.

The tradition of the yearly physical examinations is antiquated. Annual checkups cost the nation billions while yielding virtually no health benefits, argues Ezekiel J. Emanuel, oncologist and vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania.


In a study conducted by the Cochran Collaboration, an international group of medical researchers, over 182,000 people were followed for nine years to better understand the benefits of an annual medical exam, i.e. visits to the doctor not prompted by any health complaint. 

Annual checkups failed to extend life expectancy of patients or reduce instances of specific causes of death such as heart disease and cancer.

And while the United States Preventative Services Task Force does not have a recommendation with respect to annual visits to the doctor, Canada's equivalent body has advised against the routine sine 1979.

Because the exams are not prompted by any health complaint, they amount to health screenings for healthy people, which is not a convincing way to improve people's health. Nor do the exams help reduce death and injury caused by acute problems such as unintentional injury, suicide, or chronic conditions like Alzheimer's. 

The exams may even be cruel in some cases. When a physical exam discovers esophageal or pancreatic cancer, for example, patients will not likely live longer as a result, but will spend more time knowing they have cancer.

In his Big Think interview, Ezekiel J. Emanuel discusses how the media can incorrectly shape health policy through lack of nuance and short attention spans: 

Read more at the New York Times

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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