Dr. Ted Toborg, of Novant Health Premier Medical Associates in Winston-Salem understands why some patients might not be too thrilled about going to their Medicare annual wellness exam. When Medicare launched these free exams for members in 2011, he wasn’t too thrilled about performing them, either, he admits.

“Initially, it just seemed like another thing to do not and not necessarily a benefit from what we already do at an annual physical,” he said. “But I tried to maintain a positive outlook and as I looked at it more in-depth, I realized that the annual wellness visit provides more information about a patient’s health than an annual physical.”

Here’s Toborg’s guide to making the most of these exams, which are free.

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What’s the difference between a wellness exam and a physical?

The big difference between a wellness exam and a physical exam is that a physical examines the patient from head to toe. Unlike a wellness exam, a physical involves blood work – like getting cholesterol levels checked.

“A lot of people avoid getting a physical because they don’t like going to the doctor or feel like they are healthy and are doing fine,” he said. “But as we get older, it’s good to touch base with your doctor once a year and do blood work, if appropriate.”

He said there have been several times throughout his career when, during a physical, he’s caught medical conditions that people didn’t know they had, like atrial fibrillation.

“I listen to their heartbeat. It’s irregular, and we get an electrocardiogram (EKG) and it turns out, it’s atrial fibrillation,” he said. “Detecting atrial fibrillation is especially important for older folks because it increases their risk for stroke and they often have no symptoms.”

Meanwhile, a wellness exam is more focused on prevention. It can even be done over a video visit because there’s no blood work involved. Patients are asked to fill out a health risk assessment ahead of the appointment to gather basic information: who they live with, risk assessment for falls and mental health screenings for depression or cognitive abilities.

The questionnaire also addresses financial and social concerns that a patient might have. If needed, Novant Health can point patients toward community organizations that can be helpful.

What to expect during a wellness exam

During a wellness exam, a doctor or other clinician will review a patient’s medical history, family history and social history. It’s also an opportunity to talk about advanced care planning and how to create an advanced directive living will. The wellness exam takes about 30 minutes and can be done by a primary care physician, registered nurse, nurse practitioner or physician assistant.

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Exploring the benefits of a wellness exam

Now that he’s been performing them for more than a decade, Toborg said he’s seen the benefits that wellness exams provide for patients.

“The answers a patient provides for the wellness exam’s health risk assessment can assess a patient’s fall risk,” he said. “If we find that a patient is at a high fall risk, we encourage them to schedule a bone density test. We’ve found that a lot of our patients have osteoporosis, but were unaware of it. Hip and bone fractures can be devastating as we age. A wellness exam is free — and it can keep you healthy and safe — so I now consider it a worthwhile thing to do.”

What to expect during an annual physical

Toborg said that when a patient schedules their wellness exam, they can schedule their annual physical, too. Both last about 30 minutes. Patients are charged for the physical. The amount a patient pays depends on their total coverage.

The physical exam is a review of a patient’s medical chart. This chart includes information about a patient’s vital signs, allergies, medications, chronic conditions and any pertinent family or social history. The physical exam also gives doctors a chance to remind patients about being updated on their vaccines, colon cancer screenings, mammograms or breast cancer screenings.

“It’s very important for patients to get their preventive services up-to-date,” he said.

You don’t have to go alone to either exam

Even though the exams are different, here’s one bit of advice that remains the same for both: Bring a friend or family member.

“It’s always a good idea, especially because we cover a lot of topics and it can be hard to remember everything,” he said. “Having a family member or adult child with you can be helpful. They can be part of your care team, take notes and ask good questions on your behalf.”