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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*

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