Going to the doctor isn't just for when you're sick. In fact, a main benefit to having a primary care doctor is being able to rely on them to help you plan for the preventive care you need at different stages of your life. For one thing, that stuff can be hard to remember. But on top of that, your doctor knows your personal and family medical history, so they can tailor your care based on your unique needs.
So, what are the main health topics you and your primary care doctor should be talking about during your visits? We’ll cover six of the biggest ones, and the benefits they have for your health.
1. Your vital signs
Each time you visit the doctor for your annual checkup, they’ll want to check your vitals. Vitals include things like your body temperature, blood pressure numbers, pulse (heart rate), respiration rate (the number of times you breathe in one minute), and your height and weight.
These things are documented in your chart, that way your care team will know if something is new or off. For example, if someone’s respiration rate is different than last year, their doctor may be able to identify early signs of respiratory infection, allergies or an underlying condition.
2. Daily lifestyle habits
Our daily habits are so routine that they often go unnoticed, but they’re actually some of the biggest factors influencing our health. Here are a few things you and your doctor can talk about to give them a well-rounded view of your health, and any ways it could be improved.
- Sleep habits – Quality sleep is critical to our health. Sleep deficiencies have been tied to chronic conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and obesity, as well as short-term effects like lack of alertness and impaired memory. Your doctor will know the recommended number of hours you should sleep at night depending on your age (or your child’s age) and can also help you make a plan to get more shut-eye.
- Diet and weight – At the beginning of your annual physical, your nurse or doctor will usually ask you to step on the scale so they can document your weight. Then at future appointments they’ll be able to notice any changes in weight and help determine the cause. During the visit, your doctor might ask about your diet to ensure that you’re getting balanced nutrition and the vitamins you need, and that you’re maintaining a healthy weight. They can also give you recommendations for how much exercise to get each week based on your needs and goals.
- Drug use or overuse of alcohol – Alcohol or substance dependency can keep you from living the life you want. And sometimes these things can affect your health and relationships more than you realize. Your doctor may check in about it and make recommendations to help if needed.
3. How to quit smoking (or for teens, never start)
If you smoke, there’s a good chance your doctor has already advised you to quit for health reasons. Scientific research and countless health studies have long linked smoking with a number of dangerous health conditions, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, COPD, emphysema and smoking-related pregnancy complications.
A HealthPartners Institute study found that advising adults to quit smoking, and discouraging children and teens from starting to smoke, are two of the most effective and life-saving conversations a doctor can have with a patient.
Your doctor will understand how difficult it can be to quit. They’ll be ready to offer you support and an action plan to kick the habit that may include lifestyle changes, medications or the community of a support group.
Doctors will also talk to adolescents and teens about the dangers of smoking, and it can often help prevent them from starting. As a parent, you can talk to your child’s doctor about any specific questions or concerns you have, too.
4. Staying current on immunizations
One of the biggest preventive care measures for kids’ health is making sure they’re up to date on their immunizations. Immunizations (or vaccines) protect them from preventable diseases, and together, we all protect each other.
Resources about immunizations for kids
But it’s important for adults to stay current on immunizations too, as well as getting the extra protection of COVID-19 vaccines and annual flu shots.
There are many reasons to have a primary care doctor, but helping you understand when and why to schedule preventive health screenings is right up there near the top. Health screenings help doctors detect health conditions earlier, when they’re easier to treat, which leads to better health outcomes.
Depending on your age, gender and medical history, your doctor will have a personalized schedule for when you’ll need certain health screenings. These screenings might include:
- Cervical cancer screenings and breast cancer screening mammograms for women
- Prostate cancer screenings for men
- Colorectal cancer screenings for both men and women
- Osteoporosis screening and bone density scans
- Testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like chlamydia or gonorrhea
- Skin checks for abnormal moles or anything else out of the ordinary
6. Your mental health
Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and the two are closely intertwined. Your doctor will want to check in with you on how you’re feeling and any mental health symptoms you’re having – whether new or related to an existing condition. If you're experiencing mental health challenges, your doctor is a great person to talk to. They can help by providing support, recommending helpful lifestyle changes, or prescribing a medication. And if additional care is needed, they’ll be able to connect you with a trusted mental health specialist.
Partner up with your doctor for your best health
If there’s something on this list that your doctor hasn’t brought up, or if there’s another health topic or question on your mind – reach out to them to discuss it. Your doctor is a huge asset when it comes to your health, but you are always your biggest health advocate. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or seek out the care you need for you or your family.