By heatherericksonauthor.comThe Erickson Family

Physical vs. Office Visit

Office Visit

There’s a difference between a general physical and a regular office visit. Knowing the difference can save you a lot of frustration when dealing with your doctor.

What’s an office visit?

An office visit is when you will discuss a new or existing health problem. You may get additional tests run or a referral to a specialist who deals with this problem specifically. Your doctor may prescribe a medication to treat the problem or reassess an existing prescription. This is also the type of visit you have when you want to talk about several vague problems that you’re concerned might add up to something more serious.


What’s a general physical?

A physical is all about preventive healthcare. Regular screenings and a general review of your current medical problems and prescriptions will happen at an annual exam. This is the appointment when your doctor will assess things like how your diet and exercise are affecting your health and what you can do to improve these things. You will get any necessary immunizations at this visit. For this reason, patients often schedule their general physical in the fall so they can get the flu shot without scheduling a special appointment. The key thing here is that physicals deal with the well-being of a person who is generally healthy.

Where the confusion comes in

If you go to your doctor for an ear infection, you will be scheduled for an office visit. You can’t expect your doctor to discuss how your diet may be contributing to iron deficiency to any great length at this visit.

Likewise, don’t schedule a physical to save yourself a co-pay (often insurance companies don’t charge a co-pay for a physical) when you want to discuss your chronic headaches.

How often should I get a general physical?

  • Ages 19-21, once every 2-3 years
  • Ages 22-64, once every 1-3 years
  • Over age 65, once a year

Of course, if you have certain risk factors such as diabetes, depression, smoking etc., your doctor may recommend more frequent physicals.

Why can’t I just talk about what’s going on with my health?

You can, but you have to understand that you might need to schedule more than one appointment if you want your concerns to get the attention they deserve. That’s because of the way appointments are scheduled. The reason for this scheduling system is proper billing, and allotting enough time for each of the doctor’s patient’s needs.

An example:

If Mrs. X comes in for an appointment about her ear infection, she is given a 10-minute appointment. She may be in the office for 30 minutes, but she gets 10 minutes with the doctor. When the doctor gets into the room she springs on him that she is also dealing with chronic incontinence (inability to control her bladder). That’s an entirely different problem that probably requires a urologist. SO, the doctor doesn’t even talk to her about the incontinence other than to give her a referral to the urologist, and he gives her a prescription for an antibiotic for her ear infection. Mrs. X feels like he glossed over her problems. In fact, the doctor did the best thing he could do (albeit in a rushed manner) because he had to fit 2 problems into 1 appointment slot.

If your doctor refers you to a specialist

Sometimes patients feel like their doctor is pushing them off to another doctor because they don’t want to deal with them. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, seeing a specialist is the best thing you can do if you have a specialized problem. For example, if you suffer from chronic headaches, a neurologist may be the best person to assess and treat the problem.

If you would like to get more information on how to get more out of your doctor appointments, sign up for the FREE Appointment 101 series!


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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on

Also, check out Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer.

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I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

The Erickson Family, Photo by Everbranch Photography
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