Don't Skip These Health Tests

Don't Skip These Health Tests

Preventative screenings can help diagnose conditions and catch medical issues early.

Whether we don’t have the time, don’t think our insurance covers them or simply don’t know which ones to get, many of us put off—or altogether skip—preventative health screenings that are designed to catch problems before they become more serious.

For example, mammograms and colonoscopies can often detect breast and colon cancer before someone has symptoms, according to Eric Goldberg, MD, a specialist in internal medicine for NYU Langone Health in New York City. Other screenings, like those done for diabetes or blood pressure, can spot escalating changes in health that are potentially reversible.

“If you’re already having symptoms, then tests are used as a diagnostic tool,” he says. “Screenings are done when you’re asymptomatic, as a way to find those issues that might be in the very early stages, when they’re much more treatable.”

Why aren’t more people getting screened?
There are a number of reasons why people might push screenings into the “I’ll do it someday” category of their healthcare, Dr. Goldberg notes. Some are afraid of the tests themselves, he says, since they might be uncomfortable or even painful in some way. Many people dread having to do a colonoscopy prep in the days before the test, for example, since it involves cleaning out the bowel with a special solution that induces diarrhea.

Other times, there may be reluctance because of the cost of tests, especially if someone has a high insurance deductible. In that case, Goldberg recommends a call to your provider, since many times, screenings are covered.

Fear of the results can also drive the decision, he adds. “People might feel like they don’t want to know,” he says. “They imagine a terrible scenario based on the results, so they just avoid it completely by not getting screened.”

Not being screened—for whatever reason—can create a gap in care for patients. Without that essential component of preventative care—which includes screenings, immunizations and wellness visits—you could be at a much higher risk for having a disease progress to a more serious stage before it’s caught.

For instance, that colonoscopy can find polyps, little growths that can lead to colon cancer. Or, if cancer cells or tumors are already present, the screening can find them before they spread. With something like diabetes screening, a test can determine whether you’re prediabetic—a stage at which considerable benefits can be realized from lifestyle changes, potentially preventing progression to type 2 diabetes.

What screenings should you get?
There are some general screening recommendations for everyone. For example, people with no risk factors are advised to begin cholesterol screenings at age 20 and have dental exams once or twice a year. There are also tests specific to women and men.

But screenings should be personalized based on your family health history, age, personal health experience and additional risk factors, Goldberg adds. For instance, since colon cancer has a genetic link, if several members of your immediate family have had that cancer, your doctor will likely recommend screenings at an earlier age.

Lifestyle choices also play a part, notes Goldberg. Some cancers and other health issues are associated with smoking, exposure to environmental toxins at a job site, and even obesity. “If you’re a construction worker who deals with asbestos and you’re a smoker, for example, it’s a good idea to have a regular lung cancer screening,” he says.

Beyond cancer and diabetes, other potential screenings include those for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis C, hearing loss, vision loss, and mental health conditions.

The best strategy for determining which tests are right for you? Speak with your doctor. Goldberg says you should bring a full family history of diseases and talk honestly about your lifestyle habits like smoking and alcohol use. Together, you and your physician can get a better idea of where your risks might be, and schedule regular screenings based on your situation.

Medically reviewed in October 2019.

Ask the Experts: Spinal Cord Stimulation and Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer Risk
Ask the Experts: Spinal Cord Stimulation and Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer Risk
Q: Lately I’ve read about paraplegics with damaged spinal cords who are able to walk again using the latest technology. Can you explain how that works...
Read More
How should I prepare my child for a painful medical procedure?
It’s a bad idea to fib about or downplay the possibility of pain to your child when unpleasant tests...
More Answers
Health Screenings You Need in Your 20s and 30s
Health Screenings You Need in Your 20s and 30sHealth Screenings You Need in Your 20s and 30sHealth Screenings You Need in Your 20s and 30sHealth Screenings You Need in Your 20s and 30s
Learn about the must-have tests for both men and women.
Start Slideshow
How Big of an Issue Are False Positives?
How Big of an Issue Are False Positives?