Are you taking advantage of the free Annual Wellness Visit that is covered by Medicare? Medicare covers an Initial Preventive Wellness Examination during the first year (sometimes called the “Welcome to Medicare Physical”) of Medicare B coverage and an Annual Wellness Visit every year after that. Scheduling these appointments is a great way to maintain your overall health.
You may be thinking, “I’m not going to go—I feel fine.” But a wellness visit isn’t just to address health problems that you know about. It’s also a chance to work with your healthcare provider, whether it’s a physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, to identify health risks and develop a strategy to reduce those risks. The wellness visit is different from an annual physical exam, as it gives you dedicated time to talk with your provider.
What to expect
The Initial Preventive Wellness Examination offers services that are not included in the Annual Wellness Visit. For example, the Initial Preventive Wellness Examination involves taking a health risk assessment, documenting your medical and family history, identifying current providers, medications and home medical equipment (if applicable), screening for cognitive impairment and depression, and reviewing your functional ability and level of safety. It also includes an opportunity to develop a personalized prevention plan. This involves planning for the preventive screenings and services you may need over the next 5 to 10 years.
The Annual Wellness Visit, on the other hand, doesn’t usually involve as many services. You may simply update the information you already shared with your provider. They may also screen you for changes in your cognitive abilities or ask you about your perceived level of safety.
During both types of visits, your provider measures your height and weight, pulse, temperature and blood pressure, and may listen to your heart, lungs, or abdomen. They will not conduct your regular physical. The majority of the time will be spent talking with you about your habits, goals, medical and family history, and your risk factors for diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, or depression. Your provider may suggest that you have additional tests or screenings done.
Together, you and your provider will come up with ways to improve your health or keep you healthy. Strategies may include lifestyle changes, behavior changes, or even medication. A wellness visit is also a good time to review all of your medications, especially if you see more than one provider. Some medicines interact with certain other medications and can cause serious side effects. Making sure all of your providers, including your pharmacist, know about all of the medicines you take can help protect you from potentially harmful interactions.
How to get ready
Once you have made the appointment, it is time to prepare. No, you can’t drop 30 pounds in a week, but you can take other steps to get the most out of your visit. Here’s how:
- Check that your provider offers the wellness visit. Not all providers do. If your provider does not, ask them to refer you to a provider who can. If they’re unable to do that, contact your local chapter of the National Council on Aging (https://www.ncoa.org/) for recommendations on providers that provide these exams.
- Look at your calendar. Make sure that you are within your first year of coverage for the initial visit or that it has been at least a year since your last annual visit.
- Make a list of all medications and assistive devices. Make sure you bring all medications, including ones prescribed by other providers. Include any over-the-counter medications, like vitamins or antihistamines, you use often, as well as any herbs and dietary supplements. If you can’t bring all your medications with you, take a picture of the label on the medicine (not a picture of the pills). You can also write out a list of the medications. If you do this, be sure to copy the name, dosage, and how often you take the medication clearly, because names of many medications sound alike. You should also mention the assistive devices you use to the provider.
- Take screening results with you. Have all of your regular screenings done, such as a mammography and colonoscopy, before your exam so you can review the results with your provider. Bring a list of your last screening tests and immunization history, including the dates they were done. This can keep you from having tests done too often or receiving unnecessary immunizations, which could help you avoid extra charges.
- Compile a list of all of your providers. Bring a list of all of your providers, including what you see them for, to your checkup. Do you see a cardiologist, neurologist, rheumatologist, dietician, or podiatrist? What about a naturopath or chiropractor? Don’t forget to note their addresses and phone numbers as well. Your healthcare provider may ask you to sign releases so they have access to your records and test results from other providers.
- Complete any paperwork or online forms. If you can, complete any requested paperwork, such as personal and family health history information, before your appointment and take it with you. This can save you time at the doctor’s office and will give you time to add information as you think about it or research it with family members.
- Bring a picture ID and insurance or Medicare cards. Your provider’s staff will need to confirm your identity.
- Write down all of your questions. No question is unimportant. Take the list with you to the appointment, and be sure to ask every question. If you don’t think you received the answer to your question, or if you didn’t understand the answer, ask your provider to explain it again in a different way.
- Be ready to take notes. You and your providers will plan a schedule for screening and preventive services for the next several years. They may also refer you to health education or preventive counseling services to help reduce potential health risks. Be prepared to write this information down on a pad of paper or electronic device.
- Prepare for a possible copay. Although this is a free visit, if your provider treats you for anything, such as injecting cortisone into a sore joint or treating a skin rash, you will be billed for these services and may have a copay. You can schedule two appointments at once—a wellness visit and another visit for a new problem or medication refill. If you need to see your provider for a reason other than a wellness visit, tell the person scheduling your checkup when you call to make the appointment.
Once the visit is complete, go home and read your notes. Do you have a clear understanding of the strategy you and your provider developed? Are you able to follow through with the plan or do you need additional help? Get any tests scheduled as soon as possible so you don’t forget. You may also want to track your progress on your goals in preparation for your Annual Wellness Visit next year.
Nancy Kupka PhD, RN
Nancy Kupka Ph.D, RN has years of experience in caring for seniors as a former home care specialist. She currently works as a writer for Walgreens, where you can find mobility scooters and other home health products to make it easier for seniors to get out of the house to doctor appointments.