The challenges of delivering health care to uninsured and underinsured patients in primary care can be exhausting. To prevent burnout, I celebrate the little successes, like when a patient’s A1c decreases from 13 to eight, or when a patient’s systolic BP is no longer in the 200s.

One of the greatest causes for celebration is when a patient that routinely visits our clinic for acute illness or medication refills makes an appointment for a physical exam. I consider this a success, because it presents us with an opportunity to address preventative care and promote general wellness in this high risk population that we might not otherwise have.

The annual physical exam, an appointment devoted to health screening, education and disease prevention, is the best opportunity for primary care providers to fulfill one of our most important roles – ensuring that health maintenance needs are met. 

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Although conversations about these topics and general recommendations for good health can be addressed during every patient visit, the time constraints of episodic appointments make it difficult to fully address many patient health concerns. During a physical exam, a more holistic approach is appropriate, so the patient may begin to understand the links between lifestyle choices, pharmacotherapy and illness.

It is during these annual visits that patients are best empowered, because this is when we have a chance to provide tools that enable them to maintain their own health autonomously. During these 30 minute visits, patients should be encouraged to focus on their well-being without distraction, and to set goals and develop plans to help achieve these goals.

One example of successful health campaigns regarding the importance of annual physical exams is the gains made in public awareness about the need for annual mammograms to prevent breast cancer. The success of such campaigns is evident when we see pink cleats to promote breast cancer awareness on the fields of football stadiums nationwide.

Imagine if NFL football players and other celebrities used their status to encourage the millions of Americans that make up their audience to have an annual physical exam. How much healthier could America be?

In general, people want to be healthy and free of disease, but many are unaware of what practices might aid them in achieving this goal. As health-care providers, it is essential that we take an active role in reminding the public about the importance of annual physical exams. We must encourage our patients to make these appointments, and ensure that we take this time to ensure that appropriate screening exams are complete, health promotion education is delivered, and immunizations are up to date.

Leigh Montejo, MSN, FNP-BC, is a National Public Health Service Corp scholar completing her service commitment as a Family Nurse Practitioner at Tampa Family Health Centers Inc. in Florida. Her areas of interest include adolescent health, health promotion and improving access to healthcare in underserved populations.