Some people go to the doctor multiple times a year, even when they are healthy and feeling well. But more often, people forgo seeing a doctor until they get really sick, finds Dr. Jennifer Caudle, a family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey. “That’s a problem,” she says, in part because it means the appointment will be focused on treating your illness, rather than on offering preventive care like screenings and vaccines.
In reality, how frequently you should see the doctor depends on your unique circumstances, health history and more. Here are six things to consider when trying to figure out what’s best for you:
- When was the last time you went to a doctor?
If you can’t remember the last time, it’s probably been too long. If you were going annually for a while and got a clean bill of health each time, you still should check in with your provider before deciding to dial back your visits. “Even if you’re perfectly healthy and you’re getting your preventive screenings, if you’re not seen for a while, it doesn’t open up the opportunity for conversations about your general well-being,” Caudle says. For example, it’s helpful for doctors to talk to you about your stress levels, work and family life, sleep quality and diet and exercise habits since all play important roles in your overall health.
- Has anything changed since the last time you went to a doctor?
Maybe you’ve always gotten a clean bill of health and don’t really want to miss work to go to the doctor this year. But there is that one symptom that’s been bothering you. That pain in your stomach you’ve been trying to ignore for months. Or the mole that’s larger than when you first noticed it. If there’s something that’s been bugging you and just doesn’t seem to be getting better, or if your life circumstances have changed – say, you’re dating someone new and should get tested for STDs – see your doctor. This is not the time to skip that pre-planned visit.
- When was the last time the doctor told you to follow up?
Was it six months? Or was it two years? If you’re not sure, you can always call the doctor’s office and ask. But there are constantly updated variations on schedules for routine tests and vaccines based on the results of your last test and other factors, like whether or not you’re a smoker and how old you are.
- Was there something you wanted to follow up on with the doctor?
If your blood pressure was borderline high at the last visit, your doctor may have recommended ways to change your lifestyle to try and bring it back down to normal. Or maybe it was determined that you have prediabetes at your last visit, or that you’re overweight and you were going to try and lose a few pounds. If that’s the case, it’s good to follow up, even if you haven’t met your goals for lifestyle change. Maybe the first set of recommendations didn’t work for you, or maybe there are other professionals, like nutritionists, you would benefit from seeing. Your doctor can help you navigate these options in the name of improving your health.
- Has something in your family medical history changed?
Knowing your family history is important; it can impact your risk of certain diseases and the suggested screening tests you undergo. For example, if a parent or other first-degree relative was diagnosed with colon cancer, it may change when you should start being screened for the disease.
- Do you have a chronic condition?
Whether you have a mild case of exercise-induced asthma or heart disease and diabetes, “if you have chronic medical conditions that require medicine, you need to be seen more than once a year,” Caudle says. Exactly how often you go, she adds, depends on whether your condition is controlled.
The timing of how often you need to see a doctor can vary. The final question during every doctor’s visit should be when to come back. It’s important to make a schedule, but not to forget to pay attention to other changes in your body, family history, life circumstances and environment that may change when you should go back. And if you’re avoiding doctor’s visits because you’re not so fond of your doctor, “don’t settle,” Caudle advises. “If patients aren’t comfortable with their doctor, it sometimes impedes the ability for us to get information that [allows us] to help patients to the fullest.”