Are Health Checkups Necessary?

Getting yearly physicals makes intuitive sense -- routine checkups can pick up early signs of disease and get you on treatment that could save your life. Or can they?

The latest review, published in the Cochrane Library from the The Cochrane Collaboration, shows that such vigilance does not reduce the risk of dying from from serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease, and may cause unnecessary harm instead.

Why? Danish researchers studied 14 long-term trials (with a median follow up of nine years) involving 182,880 people, some of whom were offered general health checks and some who were not.

Nine of the trials found no differences in the number of deaths during the study period between the groups, including deaths from heart disease or cancer, two conditions that are most commonly assessed during checkups.

Overall, the analysis failed to find any differences on hospital admissions, disability, worry, specialist referrals, additional visits to doctors or time off work. One trial did find a 20% increase in diagnoses among those getting more frequent health checks, and others recorded an increase in the number of participants using drugs for hypertension, but these did not translate into better health outcomes.

"From the evidence we've seen, inviting patients to general health checks is unlikely to be beneficial," lead researcher Lasse KrogsbĂžll of The Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark, said in a statement. "One reason for this might be that doctors identify additional problems and take action when they see patients for other reasons."

Preventive screening remains controversial -- and confusing -- for health care consumers. The intuitive power of screening for disease to prevent it is hard to counter, but the latest evidence, from government health groups such as the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), shows that the data don't always support the idea that screening leads to better health.

When factoring things such as the cost of screening and follow up tests to confirm false positive or false negative results, the regular checkups aren't always beneficial.

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Alexandra Sifferlin
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