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A Physical Routine

Of those she left back home, Gloria María Matos misses her doctors the most.

En español | Although Gloria María Matos, 55, suffers from hypertension, she hasn’t had a physical exam since moving to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 2008 because she’s uninsured and unemployed.

Like Matos, nearly three in 10 Hispanics age 45 and older didn’t have a routine physical in the past year, according to a new AARP VIVA poll. Of those, 64 percent say it’s too expensive; 54 percent lacked health insurance.

Dr. Juan Fernando Vargas, whose patients at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Panorama City, California, are also mostly Hispanic, says that even those who feel healthy may be endangering their lives by skipping physicals. “Some illnesses have no symptoms until it’s too late,” he says, such as hypertension, which causes stroke, and cancer, which can be caught with PAP testing, mammograms and colonoscopies. Of the 71 percent of Hispanics who had a physical in the past year, more than a third discovered a medical condition that required attention, including diabetes (29 percent), high blood pressure (24 percent) and heart disease (11 percent).

AARP VIVA’s survey reveals that besides money, 43 percent of those who don’t get a physical cite their difficulty understanding English as a reason. And more than a third say that they just don’t need one. “People don’t usually go to the doctor until they’re ill. Prevention costs less,” says Dr. Jessica Guajardo, director of the Cancer Center at Doctors Hospital of Laredo in Texas.

That’s where the new health care law can help. Starting in 2011, all Medicare recipients will receive one free annual physical and other preventive care services like colorectal cancer screenings and mammograms. “There’s no doubt that having access to the checkup will have a direct positive impact in picking up and diagnosing [a disease] at an early stage,” says William Martinez, a physician’s assistant in Los Angeles, whose patients are mostly Latino. “Generally, people react to anything that’s free.”

Take a Loved One to the Doctor, part of AARP’s Create the Good, can also help. The initiative provides tips on coaxing those who avoid physicals into the doctor’s office and providing moral support.

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