Stop Procrastinating on These Key Health Checks
If you put them off because of the pandemic, now’s the time to get them scheduled.
Maybe you wanted to stay out of health care settings during the pandemic.
Maybe you’ve been focused on your kids’ online learning or taking care of a loved one.
Maybe your job – and your health insurance – changed in the past year.
Or maybe you just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
No matter what your reason, after an extremely unusual year you’re probably overdue, or nearly due, for some health screenings, shots and checkups.
Specifically, the kind that can keep you healthier in the long term. The kind that pack in so much preventive power that national law says your insurance company has to make many of them free. The kind that can help you avoid future health problems – or spot them early.
The kind of health care where procrastination has a price.
The Michigan Health blog pulled together a list of some of the most important doctor’s appointments and check-ups to keep, with help from Michigan Medicine experts and national recommendations.
Keep in mind a lot of people have been delaying care, so if you call or email today it may be months before the next non-urgent appointment is available. But getting that appointment on the books is an important first step.
If you don’t have health insurance that would cover your care, this is a good time to see if you can get a low-cost plan on the Healthcare.gov Marketplace.
Start by scheduling a visit with your primary care provider
If you haven’t checked in with your main primary care provider since before the pandemic, now’s the time to get an appointment scheduled with the doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant at the clinic you consider your “medical home.”
Whether adults need an annual ‘checkup’ like children do is the subject of debate. But Medicare now covers an annual checkup for everybody over age 65, and most private insurance plans and Medicaid programs cover one too.
The clinic may ask you to start with a virtual visit, via your computer or smartphone. But some services must be done in person, such as tests to spot early signs of high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and other things that can grow into bigger problems and risks over time if they don’t get attention.
Going to a clinic in person is safe – whether or not you’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 yet. Wear a mask, follow social distancing recommendations, but feel confident that your health care team knows how to protect you from coronavirus.
Tell your doctor or health care provider about your pandemic-related concerns
Many people have gained weight, used more alcohol, tobacco or drugs, had problems sleeping, or felt more depressed, anxious or abused by a partner during the pandemic. If you’re one of them, bring it up at your appointment – or better yet, mention it when you call or send a message requesting an appointment, so your provider can prioritize that topic in your visit.
At your visit, work with your provider to make a plan for eating healthier; exercising more; cutting back on smoking, drinking and using other substances; and improving your mental well-being or getting help for serious issues including relationship issues.
If you have gained weight, consider asking your provider for a blood test for diabetes. If your results show you are at risk for diabetes, you may qualify for help with a behavioral weight loss program that can prevent diabetes.
Other reasons to make an appointment with your primary care doctor or other provider soon
A regular checkup is also important if you have a chronic condition, if you take multiple prescription drugs and supplements, or you have a family history of a serious illness or sudden death at younger ages. Your primary care provider can also write referrals for you to be seen by specialist physicians. Keep in mind that many insurance plans require a referral before you can see a specialist.
Other highly important tests include checking your blood for signs of a “silent” hepatitis C infection (recommended for most adults), referring you for a bone density scan to check for osteoporosis if you’re a post-menopausal woman or older man, screening you for depression, and tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
What should you do if you don’t have a regular primary care provider?
This is a good time to get one. Let the ‘fresh start’ of this new phase in the pandemic be a time to resolve to take charge of your health by getting preventive care in a timely way, when it can help you most. Here’s where you can find a Michigan Medicine primary care provider.
Visit your doctor’s office or a pharmacy to catch up on your vaccinations
First and foremost, if you haven’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine yet, take care of that first. If you have concerns about something you’ve heard about the COVID vaccine, talk to your regular provider about them; don't just rely on what you see on social media or hear from friends.
If you got your COVID vaccination in a different state, ask your primary care provider to add the date, type and lot number into your own health record, and into the state database.
In general, you should wait two weeks after your last or only COVID-19 shot to get any other vaccine.
Crucial vaccinations adults should get
Shingles: If you’re over 50, you should get the shingles vaccine, to keep the virus that causes chicken pox from emerging from its hiding place deep in your body and erupting into painful blotches. The vaccine was once in short supply but now there’s plenty. After you get your first shot, don’t forget to schedule your second one two to six months later.
Pneumonia: Most adults over 65, and adults of any age who smoke or have a condition that affects their immune system such as diabetes, asthma, heart failure or a cochlear implant, should get the pneumococcal vaccine. It can prevent diseases including sinus infections, pneumonia, meningitis and blood infections.
Tetanus, diphtheria & pertussis (whooping cough): Every adult needs a booster shot of DTP vaccine every 10 years. If you’ll be around babies, it’s especially important to protect them from pertussis, commonly called whooping cough, by getting vaccinated. If you can’t remember when you had your last one, it’s probably time to ask your doctor.
Flu: This is one to mark your calendar for, sometime in September or early October. That’s when the annual flu shot should be available nationwide. Even though flu cases were down sharply this past season because of pandemic-related preventive measures including reduced international travel, the reopening of society is likely to mean a more ‘normal’ flu season ahead. Even though the flu vaccine doesn’t prevent all cases of flu, it can mean you get a much milder case.
Look for early signs of common cancers
Cancer experts sounded the alarm about the sharp drop in cancer screenings last summer, when people canceled or delayed appointments because they wanted to reduce their exposure to coronavirus.
Now, doctors are finding that more of the people diagnosed with cancer in the past year have tumors that are larger or more invasive than they might have been if the person had gotten a timely scan. Experts from the U-M Rogel Cancer Center offer guidance on the most important cancer screenings you should get based on age.
Colon cancer: If you’re between the ages of 45 and 75, this is a crucial test. And good news: you don’t necessarily have to go for a colonoscopy, which many people dread. New recommendations say most people can start with an at-home stool test to screen for colon cancer.
Breast cancer: Some women start having annual mammograms at age 40, and all women should get them regularly from ages 50 to 75. An important note: If you recently got your COVID-19 vaccination, you should wait a few weeks before having a mammogram.
Lung cancer: You might have missed it, because it happened during a peak in the pandemic. But if you’re a current or former smoker, there’s a new recommendation that may mean you should get a CT scan of your lungs to look for early signs of lung cancer.
Cervical cancer: If you are a woman under 65, you should get an HPV test to screen for a virus that’s involved in many cases of cervical cancer. Your provider may take a “Pap smear” cytology test as well. Your schedule for when to get your Pap smear depends on your history of testing and results. You can get an HPV vaccine to help prevent cervical cancer through the age of 45, though you may want to check to see if your insurance company will cover it if you’re past your young adult years. (And if you know a young man, encourage them to get their HPV vaccine too.)
Other essential health maintenance checks adults should get
Get to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned and gums checked: All adults should see a dentist or dental hygienist at least once a year, and preferably twice – so if you haven’t gone since the pandemic started, you’re definitely overdue.
If you’ve had tooth or jaw pain, or bleeding gums, now’s the time to get an appointment in the books. And not just because of your mouth – poor gum and periodontal health has been associated with worsening cardiovascular health, diabetes and pregnancy-related problems. Dentists can also spot early signs of damage from tooth grinding related to stress.
Get your eyes checked: If you wear glasses or contact lenses, and you haven’t had an optometrist check your prescription since before the pandemic, it’s time to get an appointment. If you’re over 50, you should also get checked for glaucoma. And if you’ve been working from home and the computer screen is looking a little fuzzy, an eye specialist can advise about that, too. If you have diabetes, regular eye exams are especially important, to look for changes in your retina.
Get your hearing checked: As we get older, our hearing can worsen – and many people don’t even realize it. Although the national Preventive Services Task Force doesn’t strongly recommend regular hearing screenings or tests for adults, you may still want to get a “baseline” test done, especially if you’re in your 50s to early 60s. A recent U-M poll found many older adults haven’t been screened or tested for hearing loss.
If you have noticed any issues with your hearing, or someone else has said they’re concerned about your hearing, tell your doctor – there may be a chance to get a hearing test covered by insurance.
If you also see a specialist for a chronic condition, now is the time to follow up: If you already had been seeing a specialist before the pandemic – for instance, to help you manage your diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, lung problems, digestive issues or other condition – you should check in with them now, too. Don’t assume they’re going to contact you to make sure you catch up with blood draws and other lab tests that monitor how you’re doing. Call or email their office to ask if you should make an appointment or get bloodwork done.
You may be able to do these kind of disease monitoring appointments via virtual visits more and more. The pandemic has made telehealth visits part of the ‘new normal’ of health care – and may make it even more convenient and less of a burden on your schedule than before.
A pharmacist can help you manage your meds: Many people don’t realize that many pharmacists offer appointments where they can go over all the medicines, vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements you take.
This kind of medication review can spot opportunities to optimize doses, save money and avoid risky drug interactions. But many adults who take multiple medications and supplements haven’t taken advantage of having their pharmacists help them manage their medications. If you have Medicare, your drug plan may cover this, too.
Thanks to Eve Kerr, M.D., M.P.H. and Mark Fendrick, M.D., of the Division of General Medicine; Philip Zazove, M.D., M.M., M.S., Diane Harper, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., and Caroline Richardson, M.D., of the Department of Family Medicine, and Romesh Nalliah, D.D.S., M.H.C.M., of the School of Dentistry for their assistance in compiling this article.