Do You Need a Physical?

Ever wonder if you really need a physical? What does it entail, anyway? What can you expect during a physical exam? Listen to House Call Doctor's explanation of what a physical exam really consists of.

Sanaz Majd, MD
5-minute read
Episode #258

image of a doctor doing a physical exam

Did you know that most health insurance plans must cover an annual physical exam without cost to patients? This was one of Obamacare’s health care requirements to ensure that health plans are implementing quality and standardized care for all patients. And, believe it or not, a question I get asked a lot is: “Do I need a physical?”

The answer is it depends. It depends on how up to date you are on all of your preventative screening tests, your age, and how often you see your doctor. The short answer to this question is it’s always best to play it safe than be sorry later. If you’re not sure, then by all means, schedule that physical.

But what is a “physical” anyway? What does it entail? Will you be forced to have a pap smear or prostate exam? How can you best prepare for one?

What is a Physical?

The physical exam is really a lot more than an exam. It’s more than simply your doctor listening to your heart and lungs, asking you to say “ahhh” while opening your mouth wide, and examining your tummy.

Although the actual physical evaluation of the “physical” exam is one component, it’s much more than that. It’s a chance for your doctor to check inside your body based on the latest research and evidence informing the medical community (often the only way that services are covered), as well as to ensure you have met all of your preventative screening recommendations depending on your age. 

It’s about ascertaining if you’re up to date on these and more.

Notice that I left out prostate screening. The guidelines for prostate health have changed in the last few years, and some groups do not recommend “routine” screening for prostate exams. But if you ask another expert group, they’ll tell you that men in certain age ranges should still be screened. Review this controversial medical topic with your doctor after having checked out my prior article on it, so that you’re armed with the most up to date knowledge and that the two of you can devise a personal plan together.

More than likely, your doctor will be examing you from head down. He may look at your eyes with the ophthalmoscope, then inside the ears and the back of the mouth with the otoscope. If all goes well, next is neck where the thyroid resides, and then listening to the heart and lungs which are two vital organs. He or she may ask you to lie back down to examine your stomach, and if the patient is female then sometimes a breast exam will be conducted. Next may be the skin and the lower extremities. 

At the end of the day, the physician can only make recommendations on what screening tests should be done. They will not “force” you to do anything you don’t want to do. So if this is the only thing keeping you back from scheduling a physical, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Worst case scenario, after learning the pros and cons, you can always decline that colonoscopy, mammogram, or blood test. But just make sure you have reviewed everything with your doctor before making that decision.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.