The most important thing you can do for your health today

It only takes a single phone call to kick off long-term, healthy changes

Elizabeth Millard
Mature couple using at-home monitor to check man's blood pressure.

When it comes to taking in health advice, it can feel like drinking from a fire hose. Get more protein. Exercise for 150 minutes a week. Eat your vegetables. Start a mindfulness practice. On and on it goes. While those nuggets of advice are helpful, there’s 1 piece of wisdom that really does deserve your full attention: Book your Annual Physical and Wellness Visit. 

“Seeing your doctor shouldn’t be reserved only for when you think something is wrong,” says Scott Kaiser, M.D., geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California. “There are so many conditions that don’t have symptoms until they’re in a more advanced stage, and catching them early gives you a much better outcome. Plus, it’s helpful just to stay on track with feeling your best.” 

Even those who are usually good about putting checkups on the calendar may have skipped them in the past year due to COVID-19 shutdowns and precautions. For example, 43% of adults in the U.S. missed routine, preventive health care appointments in 2020, according to a report in the Journal of the National Medical Association. And more than a third missed important screenings for issues like cancer. 

No matter how great you’re feeling right now, these visits give you an opportunity to stay on top of your health in meaningful ways. Here’s a closer look at 4 reasons why a yearly visit with your health care provider is so important. 

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1. Catch silent symptoms  

Unmanaged high blood pressure can lead to serious heart problems. But in the majority of people, there are no symptoms, according to the American Heart Association.  

Other conditions might have subtle symptoms that are easily brushed off, says Dr. Kaiser. Prediabetes, is a prime example. It tends to come with more frequent urination, but many people don’t put two and two together and call their provider, he says.  

Early lung disease is another condition that can sneak up on you. Dr. Kaiser says the persistent dry cough that would be a red flag to your provider is something that many people chalk up to changes in the weather, allergies or a cold. Getting checked for these kinds of difficulties can be essential for treating them effectively, Dr. Kaiser says. 

Also, there may be some small but important shifts that are worth bringing up. For example, you may have had a fall recently, due to some mild vertigo or balance issues. Or you could have bladder control challenges that weren’t happening before, or changes in your memory or mood that seem to be nonstop.  

“Sometimes, people are afraid to bring up these kinds of concerns, or they feel embarrassed,” says Dr. Kaiser. “But even if these types of things are temporary for now, at least we have a timeline and can keep an eye on it. That helps with early detection going forward.” 

How to prepare for your Annual Wellness Visit   

To get the most out of the visit, follow these steps:  

1. Schedule your appointment. If you need help finding a network provider, our easy-to-use online search tools can help. Sign in to your plan website and click on Find Care.  

2. Download your Annual Care Checklist. This handy list of health care topics and recommended screenings is a great way to get the conversation started with your provider. Find your copy here.   

3. Call Customer Service if you have questions. Our team is here for you 7 days a week to help answer your questions, understand your coverage, help schedule your appointments — you name it. Call the number on the back of your member ID card.  

Not a member? Learn more here.  

2. Cover health concerns and lifestyle changes 

Your cousin’s boyfriend’s daughter’s friend is trying a keto diet to lose weight. Should you try it? An online message board says ginkgo biloba is just as good for your heart as the cholesterol-lowering statins you take. Should you ditch the prescription and take herbal remedies instead? 

The internet and your social connections can be valuable as sources of support. But when it comes to your specific health recommendations, you’ll want an expert source — namely, your provider — to weigh in. Only your provider is in the position to cover your medical history, conditions, family history, lab results and more. They can put all the pieces together to help you create a tailored, evidence-based approach that works for you. 

That’s true not just with concerns but also with ways to optimize your health, says Dr. Kaiser. During your wellness visit, be sure to ask about: 

  • Types of exercise and diet changes that might be best 
  • Supplements you’ve considered trying 
  • Referrals to specialists (such as a nutritionist, physical therapist or mental health counselor) who can help with ongoing issues  
  • Medications you’re taking, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins and supplements 

You can also use the appointment as a way to set health goals and figure out how to reach them, says Dr. Kaiser. 

“Your routine physical isn’t about checking the boxes — it’s really an opportunity to have a conversation about your health in every way,” he says.  

3. Stay up to date with immunizations and screenings 

Along with the new COVID-19 vaccine, there are other immunizations that are worthy of your attention as well.  

A major example is the shingles vaccine. Chances are you know someone who’s been temporarily sidelined by this painful viral infection that’s best known for producing a blistering rash. Or maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. Either way, there’s a 2-dose series of shots that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages all healthy adults over the age of 50 to get. This is the case even if you’ve previously had shingles or received a now-outdated shingles vaccine called Zostavax.  

The CDC also recommends other vaccines for older adults that are related to your age, lifestyle, travel plans or health conditions. The seasonal flu vaccine is right up top, as is being up to date on your tetanus booster shot and the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine. Your wellness visit serves as a friendly reminder of these important immunizations. 

In terms of screenings, Dr. Kaiser says it’s important to talk with your provider about which ones you need. There are general recommendations based on age — for instance, a regular colorectal cancer screening is advised for everyone between the ages of 50 and 75. But your personal and family health history, as well as current symptoms, also play a big part in determining the screenings that are right for you.  

Ask your provider when you can expect to receive results from any tests or screenings they’ve recommended. That way you can keep an eye out for a notification that your results are in.  

For a more detailed list of recommended screenings for older adults, download your PDF copy of “Power Up Your Prevention Plan” here.  

Plan for your preventive care  

UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plans include access to preventive care like flu shots and other important screenings. And your Annual Physical and Wellness Visit, which can be combined into one appointment, is a great opportunity for you and your provider to work together on a wellness plan based on your health and medical history. Your annual visit has a $0 copay when you schedule it with a network primary care provider (if your plan has a network). Use our online search tools to find a provider near you. Sign in to your plan website and click on Find Care. Not a member? Learn more here

4. Review your medications 

Even if you’ve taken the same maintenance medications for years — statins for high cholesterol, bisphosphonates for bone density, or levothyroxine for thyroid regulation, for example — it’s crucial to go over them with your provider at least once a year.  

“You want to make sure your medications are still working for you in the way they should,” says Donald Mack, M.D., a specialist in geriatric medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. 

That’s especially true if anything with your health has changed over the past year. For example, maybe you hurt your back and went to an urgent care center. The provider you saw may have prescribed medication for the pain, which in turn caused constipation. Seeking relief, you may have been prescribed something for that issue. But maybe it worked too well, and now you’re also taking something for diarrhea. 

“This is called a ‘prescribing cascade,’ and it’s pretty common,” says Dr. Mack. “Because there’s no central database where potential interactions are getting flagged, you may not know that one of your medications could be causing big problems with your other medications.”  

Your annual checkup is the best place to untangle all of this, says Dr. Mack. A good portion of this visit will include a medication review. This is when you and your provider go over every medication, including over-the-counter items, to help ensure that you’re taking only what you need, and in the correct dosages. 

Learn what you’ll pay for prescriptions  

Look up your maintenance medications and find out what you can expect to pay at the pharmacy by visiting the Pharmacies & Prescriptions page on your plan website. Not a member? Learn more here