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How Often Do You Really Need to Go to the Doctor?

Tips that may help you cut back on time spent at medical appointments

spinner image A man is sitting in his doctor's office and listening as the doctor shows him something on a digital tablet
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Health problems that need routine monitoring definitely increase as you get older, and adults over age 65 go to the doctor more than twice as often as 18- to 44-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But is a calendar full of medical appointments really necessary?

"There's a lot of debate” around how often adults should see the doctor, says Paul Takahashi, a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He recommends that adults who take medication for chronic conditions see their primary care physician at least once a year to make sure diseases are being properly managed and to stay on top of preventive screenings, such as mammograms and blood sugar tests. “We take good care of our equipment and our cars. Taking care of ourselves is also really important,” says Takahashi, whose patients are primarily 65 and older.

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That's not to say you shouldn't schedule additional appointments when you experience an illness or injury — many adults also see specialists to help manage more complex conditions. But overscheduling medical care doesn't guarantee better health.

"There is a harm in getting over-investigated, overworked and overmedicated,” says Peter Abadir, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Frequent visits to health care facilities “where a lot of sick patients visit” also put one at a “higher risk of getting something,” such as an illness or infection, Abadir says. His advice? “You don't need to see a physician unless you need them.”

Here's how to make the most out of each visit you truly need.

Come prepared

Preparing for appointments ahead of time is one way to cut down on the number of trips you make to the doctor's office. Write down all of the questions and concerns that you want to address during your visit to ensure that you don't need a follow-up appointment for forgotten points. “It's one of the most important things that people can do,” since it helps both the patient and the provider focus during what's often a short amount of time, Takahashi says.

Having another set of ears in the room to help you record and recall the doctor's instructions is another tip that Takahashi says can be helpful to older adults, especially if the physician makes any changes to medications. Plus, a family member or friend can provide a sense of comfort.

"It's nice to have another individual to be there to be supportive and also to ask questions, and we certainly encourage that. As our population gets a little older, we're sort of seeing more of that family or team approach to help with care,” Takahashi observes.

Rethinking the traditional visit

Checking in with your doctor may not require an in-person visit. There's going to be “tremendous growth” in the field of telemedicine, and it will change the way patients interact with their providers, Takahashi says. Many doctors field questions from patients on portals or over email, which saves time and resources. Some health care providers monitor patients’ conditions through wearable devices that track blood pressure, sleep and activity levels.

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Ask your provider if virtual visits are an option. These videoconference-like appointments allow patients and physicians to connect over a computer or smartphone and can be especially helpful for wellness checkups that don't require testing or physical interaction with the doctor.

"What we would consider to be the traditional ‘Come into the office’ may be very, very different” in the near future, Takahashi says.

Geriatric psychiatrist Deirdre Johnston uses virtual visits to care for several of her patients. “Very often they don't need to be present in the clinic, especially if they're patients we know,” says Johnston, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “It's enough for us to be able to interact visually with them and cast eyes on them and on the situation … and they don't have to struggle to get into the car and into the clinic and have to park and walk.”

Geriatricians help manage medical care

Older adults who see specialists for advanced or unstable chronic conditions may want to consider switching from their primary care provider to a geriatrician. These doctors are especially good at streamlining care and coordinating communication among all of a patient's providers, Abadir says.

Geriatricians are also trained “to be in tune with the needs of older adults and their medications,” making sure one doesn't affect another or cause unwanted side effects such as dizziness, which can increase fall risks, Abadir explains. They also monitor any mental and physical changes in patients and help with dietary and social issues.

When necessary, geriatricians “move to more of a palliative approach to some things,” Takahashi says. “There are a lot of things we can't cure. I can't cure memory loss; I can't cure dementia. But we need to work with it.”

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