Yes, it's safe to go for checkups again—these are the most important ones to get on your calendar.

By Claire Gillespie
April 09, 2021
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For more than a year, COVID-19 has largely confined people to their homes and shut down schools, stores, and businesses. The pandemic isn't over, of course. But thanks to the vaccine, normal life is starting to gradually return—and doctors' offices that were closed or offered only limited services for the past year are opening back up.

You're not alone if you've skipped your regular checkups this past year. According to a survey of 1,093 Americans from TIME-Harris Poll, 78% have put off at least one medical service during the past three months, 30% have skipped their dental exam, and 27% missed their annual checkup. Even those who make their health a priority have let things slide. In a recent survey by Meredith, the parent company of Health, less than half of women who identify as "health enthusiasts" reported keeping on top of their doctor's appointments.

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Credit: Getty Images

If you haven't seen your doctors in over a year except for COVID-related issues, it's time to get them on your calendar. These are the doctor appointments that are most important, according to physicians. If you're concerned about the safety of going to your doctor's office, contact the office to ask what precautions they're taking, Richard Seidman, MD, MPH, chief medical officer at L.A. Care Health Plan, tells Health.

Ob-gyn checkup

Your ob-gyn checkup is your opportunity to talk about birth control, be tested for sexually transmitted infections, have a pelvic exam (when your doctor uses the speculum to examine parts of your reproductive system), and address any changes to your cycle. It's also where you can get important cancer screenings—such as a clinical breast exam and a Pap test, if you need it. (The guidelines for Pap tests are based on age and if your last Pap came back normal; your doctor should be keeping track as to when you're due for one.)

Though the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) doesn't indicate that women with no symptoms need to have a yearly pelvic exam, many ob-gyns feel a yearly checkup is crucial. "There are medical conditions where symptoms may be subtle or not obvious, such as certain STIs (like chlamydia), urinary tract and bacterial infections, and ovarian cysts, which can be diagnosed [via a] pelvic exam," Sherry Ross, MD, ob-gyn at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health.

Because your ob-gyn addresses sexual health, it's also a time for you to open up about other intimate mental or physical health issues. "Meeting with your ob-gyn yearly gives you the opportunity to discuss topics such as family planning, sexual dysfunction, depression/anxiety, domestic violence, and other social issues," Dr. Ross adds.

Mammogram/breast cancer screening

When you're at the ob-gyn (or primary-care physician), ask your doctor about a referral to a radiology center for a mammogram. The guidelines concerning how often women should get this breast cancer screening varies. The American Cancer Society suggests that average-risk women (meaning you don't have certain risk factors for the disease, like a family history or genetic mutation) start getting them yearly between ages 45 and 54, then switch to every 1-2 years after age 55. ACOG recommends women start having mammograms every 1-2 years between ages 50 and 74. Your ob-gyn can let you know how often you should go for a mammogram...and if you should get one in 2021.

"The bottom line is that despite the pandemic, breast cancer has not taken a vacation," Richard Reitherman, MD, PhD, medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells Health. "Mammograms do save lives. And the next life it saves, may very well be your own."

Primary-care physician visit

A routine physical examination helps you stay in good health by addressing a wide range of topics. Usually, preventative care is at the top of the list, Amy Mullins, MD, medical director for quality and science at the American Academy of Family Physicians, tells Health.

What happens during your annual physical varies depending on your personal and family health history, and your age can also play a factor in what types of conversations your doctor has with you. Depending on your age, your physician may discuss the need for a mammogram, colonoscopy, or immunizations, Dr. Mullins says. Taking your vitals (like heart rate and blood pressure) as well as doing a blood panel to check cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood cell issues could also be part of the physical.

These visits are also a good time for you to bring up any health concerns you might have, including any changes with your physical or mental health in the last year, says Dr. Mullins. "As we continue to move through and out of the COVID-19 pandemic, wellness and wellness visits are important and a great time to touch base and make sure staying well remains a priority," she adds.

Dental check/teeth cleaning

To maintain good oral hygiene and a healthy mouth, you need to visit your dentist regularly, Boca Raton, Florida cosmetic and restorative dentist Geoffrey R. Morris, DMD, tells Health. So if you haven't been in at least a year, it might be time.

How often to come in for a cleaning—and the exam and X-rays that may come with it—should be determined by your dentist and based on your individual needs, according to Ruchi Sahota, DDS, spokesperson for the American Dental Association. "While many people can get routine cleanings completed twice a year in order to maintain healthy gums and periodontal (tooth bone) health, some people need routine cleanings three or four times a year," she tells Health.

Regular checkups and early detection can have a big impact. For example, they can be the difference between getting a small cavity filled or needing a crown or root canal. "These checkups detect any issues, such as cavities and gum disease, early enough that they can be corrected with minimal treatment and cost," says Dr. Morris.

During an annual visit, your dentist may take a series of X-rays to look at what's going on inside your teeth and the bones that support them and measures pocket depths around the teeth to determine if gum disease is present. "Patients that have healthy gums, periodontal bone health, and teeth without cavities do not need X-rays during every routine visit. We can do take x-rays every year or every other year in these cases," Dr. Sahota says. "However if patients have bacterial buildup, decreasing bone health, and/or cavities, it is important for a dentist to monitor those issues. Often, the only way to get a clear picture, we have to take X-rays."

A visual examination of the head and neck, mouth, and teeth is also carried out to detect cavities, oral cancer, and anomalies. "These visits also give patients the opportunity to speak with their dentist about any issues they may be having," Dr. Morris adds.

Dermatology skin check

When detected early, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 99%. With this in mind, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends an annual visit to the dermatologist as part of an early cancer detection strategy (you should go more frequently if you're at a higher risk of skin cancer; your dermatologist can advise you).

A skin check usually takes about 15 minutes, Angela Lamb, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, tells Health. Your derm will check your skin from head to toe, including those parts you can't easily see when you look in a mirror, like your scalp and behind the ears. This check shouldn't just be visual, though; Dr. Lamb says that "a good dermatologist should be using a dermatoscope." This tool magnifies any moles in the best lighting and helps determine whether something should be biopsied.

During this skin check, your derm isn't only looking for the ABCDEs of melanoma (asymmetry, border, color, diameter or dark, evolving), but also for other types of skin cancers and for any skin features that might signal underlying vascular concerns, Dr. Lamb says.

Your annual dermatology check is also a good opportunity to speak to your doctor about any changes you've noticed in your skin or discuss your treatment plan for ongoing conditions such as psoriasis or eczema. According to Dr. Lamb, any skin concern—not just cancer prevention—can be brought up during your annual appointment.

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