America spends more per capita on health care than any other country — more than twice the average developed country. In particular, we spend about $10 billion a year on annual physicals.
And yet, World Health Organization data shows that American ranks only 34th worldwide for life expectancy. We have one of the highest rates of infant mortality and obesity across the globe. And in a 2013 study comparing 17 developed nations, the U.S. ranked dead last for overall health.
Annual physicals aren't helping. In fact, there's no evidence that annual physicals reduce the onslaught of disease or death. In studies in which subjects were randomly assigned to get a physical or not, researchers found no difference in health between the two groups.
Not only are annual physicals likely useless — they might also be harmful. That's because randomly testing asymptomatic healthy adults can often lead to "false positive" results. And a false positive leads to increased stress and worry, along with potentially more invasive tests and procedures (like medication and surgery), which might be completely unnecessary. It's a monetary, logistical, and emotional waste.
It's part of the reason why the Society of General Internal Medicine advised against annual exams for patients without symptoms in 2013. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also doesn't specifically recommend them. And a number of prominent doctors have recently published editorials calling for doing away with the annual physical.
"Eliminating the annual physical might appear contradictory to our health care system's increased attention to prevention," two Harvard Medical School professors noted in a 2015 New England Journal of Medicine editorial. "But it is evidence-based prevention that's key, and the annual physical is not evidence-based: research has demonstrated both its minimal benefit and potential harms. We believe it's time to act on this evidence and stop wasting precious primary care time."
Considering all this — the lack of evidence indicating its effectiveness, the amount of time wasted, and the evidence of excessive false positives and the unnecessary testing, procedures, medicating, and anxiety that come with them — you have to wonder: Why are annual physicals still a thing?