Annual checkups for healthy people may be harmful, study suggests

Too much of almost anything can be bad for your health — even regular checkups with your doctor, new research suggests.

Physicals could result in anxiety and unnecessary treatment for people who are healthy

Research published in Canadian Family Physician says healthy checkups clog the health system and could cause unnecessary anxiety. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Too much of almost anything can be bad for your health — even regular checkups with your doctor, new research suggests.

The research, from the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care, involved researchers from across the country, including Dr. Neil Bell from the University of Alberta and James Dickinson from the University of Calgary.

Researchers found that annual checkups "should not be a regular activity" for healthy people.

Lead author Dr. Richard Birtwhistle said physicians for decades have been calling for the end of the yearly checkup for healthy people.

"Generally, when healthy people with no symptoms go and see a physician for an annual checkup, it's unlikely for people to find any abnormalities," Birtwhistle told CBC's Radio Active Monday.

"There does not appear to be any advancement in terms of people surviving longer."

The research, published in Canadian Family Physician, looked at previous trials as far back as the 1960s and determined that none of them showed clear benefits to regular annual checkups.

Birtwhistle said yearly checkups can actually be detrimental to the health of an otherwise-healthy person.

"You can find things that actually aren't important to patients' health, end up with more testing anxiety, and potentially [lead to] treatment of unnecessary things," he said.

Birtwhistle said doctors should instead adopt periodic preventive checkups — a regimen based on the particular patient's risk for health issues.

Such checkups for healthy people could be anywhere from three to five years apart, with similar testing to that of a yearly checkup. The report suggests that the yearly approach could still be "useful for people older than 65 years of age."

Doesn't save money

Birtwhistle said getting rid of unnecessary checkups likely won't save money, but would instead save time and decrease wait times for those who do need a doctor's attention.

"I think it's time to turn the page on annual physicals ... and start to concentrate more on how do we deliver preventive care in Canada," said Birtwhistle, a professor of family medicine and public health sciences at Queen's University in Kingston.

"That doesn't include, necessarily, listening to somebody's chest who has no chest complaints."

You can ... end up with more testing anxiety and potentially [lead to] treatment of unnecessary things.- Richard Birtwhistle, researcher

The researchers suggest three possible avenues of implementing a preventive checkup system.

The first would be to provide all citizens within a certain age group a free checkup every five years. The second suggestion is to embed a health professional who specializes in prevention care into all primary-care facilities.

Finally, the researchers suggest developing a website that patients could use to help determine if they need a preventive checkup.

All three suggestions would need money from the provinces, but that they could re-purpose the funds saved from annual checkups.

But above all, Birtwhistle said, the recommendation to end annual checkups is meant to help streamline the public healthcare system.

"I think what we're doing is trying to use doctors' time or the primary care team's time in giving effective service," he said. "The hope would be that we'd have more effective delivery of preventive health services."

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.

With files from Ken Dawson