Your annual physical is a costly ritual, not smart medicine

Dr. Mark Caruso examines patient Emanuel Vega during an annual physical exam at Baptist Health Primary Care in Miami.

Story highlights

  • 92 percent of Americans say it is important to get an annual head-to-toe physical exam
  • Randomized trials going back to the 1980s just don't support that belief

(CNN)It's a warm afternoon in Miami, and 35-year-old Emanuel Vega has come to Baptist Health Primary Care for a physical exam. Dr. Mark Caruso shakes his hand with a welcoming smile.

Vega, a strapping man with a thick black beard, is feeling good, but he came to see the doctor today because his wife thought he should -- she even made the appointment. It is free to him under his insurance policy with no co-pay, as most preventive care is under the Affordable Care Act.
Vega is one of more than 44 million Americans who is taking part in a medical ritual: visiting the doctor for an annual physical exam. But there's little evidence that those visits actually do any good for healthy adults.
    Caruso listens to Vega's heart and lungs, checks his pulse in his ankles and feels around his lymph nodes. He also asks Vega about his exercise and sleeping schedule and orders blood and urine tests. As long as everything checks out, Caruso asks Vega to return for another exam in a year. Vega says he definitely will.
    It was a positive experience for both doctor and patient, and they're not alone; 92 percent of Americans say it is important to get an annual head-to-toe physical exam, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation). And 62 percent of those polled said they went to the doctor every year for their exam.
    But the evidence is not on their side. "I would argue that we should move forward with the elimination o