If you're healthy, it’s very easy to skip a physical, even if you haven't had one since... oh, maybe college? When you're feeling fine, it's hard to pencil it in. And it's even more tempting to skip the appointment if you're young, in the earliest stages of your career (i.e. not making that much money) and maybe don't have the best insurance or perhaps any insurance at all.
One of the most popular provisions of The Affordable Care Act was aimed at solving these issues by allowing young adults to stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26. But after the ACA was signed into law in 2010, there was only a 3.7% increase in the number of young adults (aged 18 to 25) getting routine exams and screenings in 2011, according to a new study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. It’s a small bump, but a promising one, says Josephine Lau, MD, a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco: “I think if we were to repeat the study for 2012, 2013, and 2014, we would find further increases.”
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While it's great that millennials are now covered if they do get sick, we wanted to know: Do young, healthy women really need to see a doctor every year for a check-up? Especially considering that even for older (but still healthy) adults, the yearly physical seems to have fallen out of favor in many expert circles. Even Lau admits that for anyone over 21, it's unclear how beneficial an annual physical is in the long-term, but that skipping your primary care doctor completely is definitely not a good idea.
Here are three important things young, healthy women miss out on when they stay away from the examination table:
If you're not going to get a yearly check-up, chances are you don't have someone to see when you do get sick. Sure, you can rely on walk-in clinics if you pick up strep, get a wicked urinary tract infection, or jam your finger, but that convenience often comes with a cost. What happens when your UTI becomes a pattern? If you're seeing a different doctor every time, the next one you see may not realize that you've already had that certain antibiotic twice and another pill might work better. “You have to start from scratch every time something’s wrong,” Lau says. “If you have your own doctor, there is continuity: He or she knows your history, and your family history, and may be able to provide better quality care.”
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Plus, many practices now offer patient portals, secure web-based systems that allow you to communicate via e-mail. “If you have a relationship with your doctor, you can ask questions or request a medication refill, and you don’t even have to pick up the phone.”
In their study, Lau and her colleagues found that the 18- to 25-year-old group is still avoiding the annual flu shot, which is preventive health 101. But there are also a few other shots healthy adult women need to consider, from the tetanus booster to possibly a varicella vaccine, which protects you from chicken pox. Many people don't have their vaccination records on hand, but your doctor counsel you on boosters you're likely due for as well as what to get if you're traveling. As vaccine-preventable diseases continue to make a comeback, this is worth a conversation, at least.
If you haven’t been vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) yet, talk to your doc about the shots (a series of three doses administered over six months). The vaccine—which protects against the types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer—is recommended for teen girls and women under the age of 26.
“Even though young people are less likely to have a chronic illness, it doesn’t mean they aren’t engaging in activities that put them at risk for disease,” says Lau.
Working long hours, unhealthy eating, drinking too much, not sleeping enough—these behaviors may not seem like a big deal now, but they do damage over time. Primary care providers, who are trained in treating the entire patient (physically, mentally, and emotionally), can provide counseling on lifestyle changes—and refer you to specialists if say, it turns out your semi-frequent headaches aren't getting better with more sleep and less booze.
The bottom line, Lau says: “Make an appointment to see your doctor once, get your screenings done, and then decide with your provider when to come back.”