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June 8, 2021

General Health Checks in Adult Primary Care: A Review

Author Affiliations
  • 1Division of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois
  • 2Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois
JAMA. 2021;325(22):2294-2306. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.6524

Importance  General health checks, also known as general medical examinations, periodic health evaluations, checkups, routine visits, or wellness visits, are commonly performed in adult primary care to identify and prevent disease. Although general health checks are often expected and advocated by patients, clinicians, insurers, and health systems, others question their value.

Observations  Randomized trials and observational studies with control groups reported in prior systematic reviews and an updated literature review through March 2021 were included. Among 19 randomized trials (906 to 59 616 participants; follow-up, 1 to 30 years), 5 evaluated a single general health check, 7 evaluated annual health checks, 1 evaluated biannual checks, and 6 evaluated health checks delivered at other frequencies. Twelve of 13 observational studies (240 to 471 415 participants; follow-up, cross-sectional to 5 years) evaluated a single general health check. General health checks were generally not associated with decreased mortality, cardiovascular events, or cardiovascular disease incidence. For example, in the South-East London Screening Study (n = 7229), adults aged 40 to 64 years who were invited to 2 health checks over 2 years, compared with adults not invited to screening, experienced no 8-year mortality benefit (6% vs 5%). General health checks were associated with increased detection of chronic diseases, such as depression and hypertension; moderate improvements in controlling risk factors, such as blood pressure and cholesterol; increased clinical preventive service uptake, such as colorectal and cervical cancer screening; and improvements in patient-reported outcomes, such as quality of life and self-rated health. In the Danish Check-In Study (n = 1104), more patients randomized to receive to a single health check, compared with those randomized to receive usual care, received a new antidepressant prescription over 1 year (5% vs 2%; P = .007). In a propensity score–matched analysis (n = 8917), a higher percentage of patients who attended a Medicare Annual Wellness Visit, compared with those who did not, underwent colorectal cancer screening (69% vs 60%; P < .01). General health checks were sometimes associated with modest improvements in health behaviors such as physical activity and diet. In the OXCHECK trial (n = 4121), fewer patients randomized to receive annual health checks, compared with those not randomized to receive health checks, exercised less than once per month (68% vs 71%; difference, 3.3% [95% CI, 0.5%-6.1%]). Potential adverse effects in individual studies included an increased risk of stroke and increased mortality attributed to increased completion of advance directives.

Conclusions and Relevance  General health checks were not associated with reduced mortality or cardiovascular events, but were associated with increased chronic disease recognition and treatment, risk factor control, preventive service uptake, and improved patient-reported outcomes. Primary care teams may reasonably offer general health checks, especially for groups at high risk of overdue preventive services, uncontrolled risk factors, low self-rated health, or poor connection or inadequate access to primary care.

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