An ER Doctor Explains Why You Should Never Skip Annual Health Checks

You can help prevent the spread of more diseases.

If you or your kids have avoided annual doctor visits since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s time to pencil those appointments in now. It may not have felt super pressing to get the doctor for regular health screenings as we were sheltering in place and maintaining social distance, especially pre-vaccine. But as kids head back into school and millions of us go back to offices, it’s more important than ever to make sure your health screenings (and vaccinations) are up-to-date.  

“It’s easy to catch up on a few months, or six months, or a year of vaccinations or screenings. But now we’re getting into this phase where people have been avoiding healthcare for a really long time,” says Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “At some point, the safety net has too many holes.” 

Kids especially need to maintain up-to-date vaccinations, to prevent the spread of more diseases. “Last year, people — particularly kids — fell behind on all kinds of vaccinations. But they need to have their pediatric vaccinations. We don’t want a measles outbreak because people are afraid to go to the doctor,” says Dr. Faust. 

If you do get sick or are diagnosed with a new illness, make sure you’re taking your prescriptions. Pharmacies like Walmart make it affordable and easy to schedule your health appointments (like flu shots, eye exams, and recommended vaccines) and pick up your medications in a convenient one-stop shop. 

As cold and flu season looms, we asked Dr. Faust to break down why regular health checkups with your doctor are so important, and what else we can do to keep ourselves and our families healthy.

KCM: Did staying indoors for most of the last year and a half increase our susceptibility to getting sick, since we weren’t interacting with as many germs?   

Dr. Faust: Last year, there was concern that we were going to have twin-fluenza — Covid and the flu at once — and it was going to be terrible. That never materialized because everything we did, from rigorous handwashing to wearing masks and staying away from people who are sick, pretty much knocked out influenza. But as we loosen up, we’re going to see people getting sick from run-of-the-mill cold viruses, ranging from rhinovirus (the most common cause of the cold) to adenovirus to seasonal Coronavirus strains that aren’t deadly. Those will crop up just like they have in the past. 

But now, there’s a fear factor of, “Do I have Covid? Do I have a breakthrough infection? I’m unvaccinated. Do I have an unprotected infection?” People having the sniffles in the year 2021 has a very different implication than sniffles in 2019. It’s going to cause some degree of stress and anxiety, which is exhibit A for why it’s so important to be doing much more rapid testing that diagnoses whether you’re contagious or not.

So, what can we do to help mitigate getting sick from common colds and flus this season?

Getting a flu shot is going to be very important in decreasing influenza, which can cause a lot of missed days at work, and, rarely, can be fatal. You should also make sure that your kids are caught up on their vaccines. Some older adults will have missed a few vaccinations, too — they might need pneumococcal or shingles vaccines that they missed last year. It’s time to get them. 

Are there any vitamins or supplements we can take to boost our immune systems before flu season? 

I think we put too much stock in this country, and around the world, in the idea that a substance or a pill can stave off an illness, when in fact that’s mostly not true unless you have a known deficiency. Last year, during the periods when we were sheltering in place, maintaining social distancing, washing our hands, and wearing masks, everyone noticed they weren’t having colds anymore. It wasn’t that we suddenly started taking some vitamin supplement. It was doing the things that we know stop communicable diseases from being communicated from one person to the next.

I’m all for a healthy diet and making sure that you don’t have any vitamin deficiencies, but I wouldn’t want to give anyone the false reassurance that doing those things — which are good for long-term health — would have anything to do with preventing illness in the short term. 

Which health appointments are important to schedule for kids before they head back to school? 

Every school is going to have its own policies on vaccinations, so I would check in with what they’re requiring. Schools want to make sure that the kids have met their milestones in terms of all of their vaccinations and screenings. We’re so fortunate that we have healthy kids most of the time, but that’s not an accident: That’s because we do it right. So we can’t afford to take a step backward.

And should adults be prioritizing any particular health screenings before going back to the office?  

Depending on your age, there are several recommendations. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends certain screening tests at certain times. But a lot of them are meant to catch occasional cases. If you miss a year or two, or three, it’s no big deal. 

Not following up on things that were being watched is where I worry. For example, if you had an abnormal finding in a colonoscopy and your doctor said, “We want you back in three years,” but now it’s been five years since you delayed because of Covid, that could be a big problem. What matters is diagnosing whether or not it’s a problem. What we don’t want is for people to ignore an issue and never get it looked at and then, in the few cases where it actually is something, we wish we’d known about it sooner.

For those who are still afraid to go to the doctor, what can they do to reduce their anxiety about making a visit?  

We shouldn’t be going to the doctor for a paper cut. But it is really important to get to your doctor and take your kids to the doctor to get their vaccines because not doing that could cause serious disease.  

Keep in mind that doctors’ offices have learned best practices. When you’re taking your kid, yourself, or your elderly relative to a medical environment, I would ask specifically if everyone is vaccinated. And if they’re not, ask what they’re doing to keep you protected. Almost 95 percent of doctors are vaccinated, but there are much lower rates in other medical professionals who are involved in your care, and you don’t want to expose yourself or someone who’s at risk.  

Want to learn more from Dr. Faust? Check out his recent interview with Katie and Catt Sadler, who was vaccinated and got Covid.