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What Is A “Complete” Physical?

A reader requests:

Can you do a post on what procedures constitute a thorough physical, in your opinion? I haven’t had one in several years and thinking of making an appointment now. The last doctor I went to didn’t even listen to my heart or go though the motions with feeling my belly and that stuff. And of the last three doctors I went to, I realized they didn’t bring up my immunization records. Is this usually left for the patients to bring up on their own?

Good question. What exactly is a physical? Does it include blood work? What about an EKG? And a cardiac stress test? Is an “executive physical” an orgy of “more is better,” previously paid lavishly, really better than a “camp physical?”

Here’s the thing: There is no such thing as a “complete physical examination.” There are literally hundreds of different maneuvers and procedures that encompass various aspects of physical diagnosis. Performing every last one of these on even a single patient would not only take many hours, it would be a colossal waste of time.

A “physical” is a misnomer. The clinical portion of a medical workup is more correctly termed the “history and physical.” Of the two, everyone agrees that the history — information elicited from the patient, sometimes from family members or other medical records — is far more likely to yield useful information. It is the information gleaned from the history that guides the physical.

Knee pain? The history should include mechanism of injury, and physical exam should evaluate for McMurry, Lachman, and drawer signs, among other maneuvers. Bellyache? Need to know about associated symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, stool pattern, flatus, and the exam better include careful auscultation (listening) for bowel sounds and palpation (feeling) for masses, fluid, possible shifting dullness, plus eliciting any guarding or rebound, and probably a rectal exam looking for blood. It makes no sense to use a tuning fork for Rinne and Weber tests to evaluate different kinds of hearing loss on someone with heartburn. Likewise, evaluating the debilitating heel pain of plantar fasciitis does not require listening to the lungs. I trust you get the idea.

The question appears to be about the “routine physical” in the absence of any specific medical concern. A more accurate term for this is a “preventive service” visit, for which there are specific guidelines. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Dinosaur*

How Good Is Your Doctor At Diagnosing You?

We’ve all been there. It often starts with some kind of recurring pain or dull ache. We don’t know what’s causing the pain or ache. During the light of day we tell ourselves that it’s nothing. But at 3:00am when the pain wakes you, worry sets in: “Maybe I have cancer or heart disease or some other life-ending ailment.” The next day you make an appointment to see your doctor.

So now you’re sitting in the exam room explaining this scenario to your doctor. Based on your previous experience, what’s the first thing your doctor would do?

A. Order a battery of tests and schedule a follow-up appointment.

B. Put you in a patient gown and conduct a thorough physical examination, including asking you detailed questions about your complaint before ordering any tests.

If you answered “A,” you have a lot of company. A recent post by Robert Centor, M.D., reminded me of yet another disturbing trend in the doctor-patient interaction. The post, entitled “Many doctors order tests rather than do a history and physical,” talks about how physicians today rely more on technology for diagnosing patients than their own “hands-on” diagnostic skills — a good patient history and physical exam, for example.

Prior to the technology revolution in medicine over the last 20 years, physician training taught doctors how to diagnose patients using with a comprehensive history and physical exam. More physicians today are practicing “test-centered medicine rather than patient-centered medicine.” Medical schools focus on teaching doctors to “click as many buttons on the computer order set as we possibly can in order to cover every life-threatening diagnosis.” The problem is that medicine is still an imperfect science, and technology is not a good substitute for an experienced, hands-on diagnostician. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Mind The Gap*

How To Avoid Unnecessary Testing: Listen To The Patient

I  remember very clearly as a medical student hearing my attending hammer home the importance of the  history and physical examination.  Everyday I heard the same thing

The history and physical examination is the most important part of patient care

After seven long years of hospitalist medicine, I gotta say my attendings were right.   If you listen to what the patient is telling you, the answer is often staring you in the face. Unfortunately, in this volume driven world of fee for service we live in, time is not on the physician’s side.  Most elderly  patients are incapable of separating important medical information from irrelevant medical  information, which can make history taking a very  painful part of being a doctor.  So they just talk and talk and talk. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Happy Hospitalist Blog*

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