Are Annual Checkups Useless, And Even Harmful?

The humble annual checkup is under fire for being, at best, a waste of time — and, at worst, hazardous to your health and paycheck.

Where's the harm in preventative testing? Approximately one in all of us will die of something at some point in our lives, and it can't be that bad an idea to see it coming. Modern medicine and all of its machines are the reason we're living the longest we ever have, instead of keeling over like the cavemen at 30. Right?

Well, yes, says the medical community — but annual checkups don't usually include preventative tests at all. Only 20 percent of mammograms, smear tests, and other kinds of before-it-happens testing are run during annual checkups, and very few preventative screenings are needed every single year. Sure, it's one thing if you're got a genetic health condition or a chronic disorder, but if you're feeling sprightly, there's no proof that your checkup will "prevent" anything at all.

And when tests are run that you don't need, that's where things start to get ugly. Firstly, health-wise: the more time you run a test, the more likely you are to get a false positive. After 14 screenings, you have more than one chance in two of being "positive" for something you absolutely don't have. And it certainly doesn't get better when treatment begins on your so-called "suspected illness" — there are substantial risks to biopsies, for example, like the chance that cancer cells can leak out and form tumors.

Secondly: your wallet. Medical screenings are expensive, and more so if you're having to correct a previous screening's mistake. Plus, if you take two hours off work, and every person in America has a single annual check-up each year, that's a lot of money lost to the already-flailing economy. Almost $2 billion in lost productivity, to be exact.

It also takes time away from patients who have real, distinguishable medical symptoms, and require immediate care. If you go for your checkup and report feeling a little under the weather — something you wouldn't have ordinarily visited the doctor for — then they're duty-bound to make sure everything's okay. If you're in House, your cold will swiftly turn into a life-threatening, possibly flesh-eating, disease — but if you're in the real world, it'll go away by itself, because colds tend to do that.

All of these checkups are costing the (did we mention, flailing) economy about $8 billion a year. That's more than is being spent on President Obama's plan to give Africa electricity for the next five years.

A Colorado study measured the health of 182,000 patients who had annual check-ups against those who didn't, and found no difference in overall health. Of course, Canada's ahead of the game on this one, and hasn't recommended annual checkups for more than 30 years. America's 2011 health care reform, on the other hand, required some insurers to pay for a checkup every year.

Come on, guys. When Canada is leaps and bounds ahead...