Most of us know that it’s important to see a doctor for an annual checkup. During your working years, that annual checkup typically means a full physical. But once you become eligible for Medicare, you’ll likely start hearing about something called an annual wellness visit.
Many people think an annual wellness visit and a physical are one and the same. Although the two have some things in common, their overall purpose is different.
During a classic head-to-toe physical, a health care professional evaluates your health history, performs a thorough physical examination, and determines if you have any new or existing medical issues that need to be addressed.
An annual wellness visit, on the other hand, is primarily focused on preventive care, health screenings and wellness planning. It gives you an opportunity to have a conversation with your doctor about your health status and goals and then create a long-term plan to help you meet those goals and maximize your well-being.
Original Medicare doesn’t cover an annual physical, though some Medicare Advantage plans do. Everyone enrolled in Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage, though, is eligible for an annual wellness visit for no copay.
The misconception that the annual wellness visit is the same as a physical could be part of the reason why so few Medicare enrollees take advantage of the benefit — only about 16 percent of beneficiaries enrolled in Original Medicare attended a wellness visit, according to the latest data.
Below you’ll find an overview of what to expect from your annual wellness visit — and hopefully the motivation to schedule one.
Taking Stock of Your Medical History
Your primary care professional will review your relevant medical history, meaning they will ask you about any major illnesses you have had in the past, any surgeries you have undergone, your current medical conditions and the medications you’re taking.
To facilitate this process, your doctor’s office may send you a form ahead of your appointment that includes a list of questions about your health history. Taking time to fill out this form in advance of your appointment can ensure your doctor has a thorough understanding of your health history and can also remind you of questions you might want to raise at the appointment.
If you don’t get a form before your visit, you should still be prepared to be as detailed as possible when describing any past medical procedures and illnesses. Knowing specific diagnoses and dates will certainly help, but even providing a rough description of major medical events in your life will help your physician understand both your past and current medical issues.
The Who’s Who of Your Health Care Team
Keeping you healthy is a group effort, and the doctor you see for your wellness visit will want to know who’s part of your health care team. He or she may also want to work closely with other health care professionals involved in your care. Therefore, you should be ready to give the person conducting your visit a list of your current health care providers, including their contact information and their field of specialty.
If you see several specialists to help you manage chronic conditions, or haven’t seen some of your doctors in the past year, it can be easy to mix them up or forget their names. That’s why it’s a good idea to create a list of your doctors and bring it with you to your wellness visit.
If you have chosen a health-care surrogate or a proxy who will speak on your behalf should you ever become too sick to speak for yourself, bring a copy of your completed forms to your appointment. If you haven’t made your choices yet, this is a good time to get your physician’s advice on your personal advance care planning.appointment. If you haven’t made your choices yet, this is a good time to get your physician’s advice on your personal advance care planning.
An Rx for a Productive Medication Review
Keeping track of all the vitamins, minerals, herbal supplements and prescription medications you take can be a daunting task, but your doctor will want to know about all of them. Getting a full rundown of all of your medications can help the doctor spot potential drug interactions that could be harmful to your health, and he or she will also want to ensure you have a complete understanding of each medication, what it’s for and any potential side effects.
Make a list, including how often you take each medication and the dosage. Better yet, bring all your pill bottles with you to your appointment and show them to the doctor.
Stats and Screenings
The doctor or nurse will first check your height, weight and blood pressure. He or she will then likely ask you some questions, including how you have been feeling recently. These questions are designed to test your cognitive function and screen you for depression. Answer them as honestly as possible and come to the appointment well-rested so you can perform your best on the tests.
Creating a Wellness Plan
After completing all tests and assessments, your physician will be ready to assess your current health status and work with you to develop a plan to meet your future health goals. That plan will address both how to treat your current conditions and how to prevent future health problems. If you have any risk factors for developing new conditions, your doctor will give you some options for managing those risks.
In addition, you will be able to talk about other preventive care or screening tests you might need in the future. The doctor will not only help to set up a schedule for these services, but will also discuss treatment options for any newly diagnosed conditions.
It’s this portion of the annual wellness visit that many people find most helpful, so be prepared to get the most out of it by developing a list of questions you would like to ask at the appointment. And don’t be shy with your questions. Unlike a standard doctor appointment, the bulk of an annual wellness visit is spent in conversation, so your doctor will have more time than usual to listen to your concerns and answer your questions.
It’s also important to be honest about your health goals. Not everyone sets out to run a marathon or hit the gym every day — and that’s OK. Maybe your goal is to ride a bike with your grandkids around the neighborhood, or to cut back on your alcohol consumption. Or perhaps you want to know what you can do about the occasional forgetfulness that’s becoming more of a daily nuisance. Whatever your goals are, your doctor can’t help you reach them if he doesn’t know about them. So try to be as open and honest as possible during your visit.
The Bottom Line
When you are prepared, your annual wellness visit is more than just a doctor’s appointment. It is your opportunity to take charge of your health and ensure you’re on the right path to living the life you want. So if you haven’t scheduled yours yet, use this as the push you need to get it on your calendar. It could be one of the most important conversations you have all year.
Plans are insured through UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or one of its affiliated companies. For Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plans: A Medicare Advantage organization with a Medicare contract and a Medicare-approved Part D sponsor. Enrollment in these plans depends on the plan’s contract renewal with Medicare.