Annual Physicals Save Dollars and Lives

Updated on May 17, 2023

Employers will spend an average of $22,000 in annual premiums for family coverage this year, up 43% since 2012 according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Human Resource leaders are working harder than ever, but paying more and getting less when it comes to quality outcomes for their employees. The biggest lever employers can pull to reverse that scenario is by investing in primary care. 

That’s because primary care is rooted in a mindset of prevention and catching things early – or avoiding them altogether – costs less. Today, 69% of Americans suffer from one or more chronic conditions, like diabetes, hypertension or obesity. And those chronic conditions, many of which could be eradicated with healthier lifestyle choices around nutrition, exercise, sleep and smoking, drive 86% of annual health spend. Encouraging employees to get an annual physical is a great way to help them adopt a mindset of prevention and empower themselves to make those important lifestyle changes. People who regularly engage with a primary care provider cost 33% less and reduce their chance of premature death by 19% according to the Purchaser Business Group on Health.

“There’s the saying ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ and it really is true,” says Dr. Michael Huang, a physician and health center director at Marathon Health. “If you really address a patient’s preventive health measures and you prevent disease from occurring before it starts, it ends up creating a much healthier population and saving money down the road.” 

Employers often incentivize employees to take preventive measures, such as getting an annual physical and biometric screening, to give employees a snapshot of their current health and to encourage them to establish a relationship with their health center care team. 

“They often come in because they’re going to save money, but then they realize that we have more time to talk to them, we spend more time discussing their preventive care,” Dr. Huang says. “The goal is to help every patient feel more responsible for their own health and want to make changes to become healthier.” 

What’s Included in an Employee Physical Exam?

During a physical examination, healthcare providers are looking for signs of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer. By catching these conditions early, employees may be able to improve their health outcomes through lifestyle changes. Let’s explore what the annual physical process looks like and how it can benefit both employees and employers.

While it can vary, physical examinations typically consist of an assessment of the employee’s health history and current health status, a physical examination and follow-up steps as needed. Even when someone looks healthy, there could be something going on under the surface that could cause issues down the road. 

Annual Exams Include Employee Health History to Understand Risks

A physical or wellness visit usually kicks off with a medical provider or nurse asking an employee lifestyle questions about their health such as if they’re a smoker or how many times a week they exercise. They’ll also ask them questions about their family’s health history to identify any potential genetic issues to keep an eye on.

Other common questions include:

• A list of current medications and any recent medication changes (including over-the-counter)
• Any supplements they’re taking and the cadence at which they take them
• Their current vaccination status (examples include tetanus, shingles, flu and COVID-19)
• The date of their last preventive screening (examples include mammograms, colonoscopies or pelvic exams)
• Any current health concerns like chronic pain, digestive issues or behavioral health struggles

What Employees Can Expect from a Comprehensive Physical Exam

Once it’s time for the physical examination, employees can expect to have their blood pressure, heart rate, height, weight and respiration rate measured. Practitioners will then typically examine the lungs, neck and abdomen, and in some cases, they may also do a skin examination to check for any abnormalities.

“During the examination, I do a comprehensive exam from head to toe,” shared Silvia Madrigal, Family Nurse Practitioner and Marathon Health Regional Clinic Leader. “A physical exam is one of the few opportunities we get to look at the patient from a comprehensive approach. Things such as thyroid nodules can be palpated, irregular heartbeat detected, or find skin lesions that need further evaluation. At Marathon Health, we have the time to perform a comprehensive exam and a thorough action plan.”

A basic lab draw and physical exam can detect several of the leading causes of preventable death, such as heart disease, diabetes and various cancers.  

“If we can prevent heart disease before it starts, that’s a very big deal,” Dr. Huang says. “Regular blood pressure checks, cholesterol screenings and different preventive measures are very important to catching serious problems early. We also screen for several types of cancer, such as breast cancer and cervical cancer for women and prostate cancer for men.” 

Employee Annual Exams Should Include Next Steps, Goal Setting

Once the exam has been completed, the healthcare provider and employee will sit down and discuss anything that they feel should be followed up on, like ordering additional lab work or making a referral to see a specialist. This is also a good opportunity to discuss any goals or lifestyle changes the employee would like to make to improve their health. 

If a preventive screening uncovers a chronic health issue, the health center care team works with the employee to establish a personalized plan to address their concerns moving forward. In 2022, 59% of Marathon Health members with high-risk conditions made measurable improvements on their health. 

That was the case for patient Charlotte Blue who discovered after completing her annual physical at her employer-sponsored Marathon Health center that she had high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. She met with a health coach who helped her set goals including enrolling in a diabetes care management program where she learned how to make changes to her diet to improve her blood sugar levels. She was eventually able to reduce her cholesterol, improve her blood sugar level and lose 100 pounds. “I look and feel fabulous,” Blue says. “I made a lifestyle change and I love the improved me.”

Annual Physicals Help Reduce Employer Healthcare Costs

“We’re empowering members to make their own good decisions and help them understand what they need to do and the benefits of doing it,” Dr. Huang says. “The days of the doctor spending no time with the patient and just writing a prescription are long gone — at least in our model. It’s much more of a partnership now, and I think helping patients take control of their own health is a big part of living happier, healthier lives.” 

When employees regularly engage with preventive healthcare, employers also see a reduction in healthcare costs and the amount of time employees miss work. That’s why Madrigal says employers should encourage their workforce to engage with preventive care services.

“The value of using an annual physical exam in an incentive program is that practitioners have the opportunity to catch health issues before they become bigger and are harder to control,” Madrigal says. “When conditions go untreated, employees will often take make more trips to the ER and take more time off work which is going to be costly for their employer. Employees are less likely to leave a job if they feel that they’re being taken care of. Marathon Heath’s model allows me to spend more time with my patients which creates better outcomes for both them and their employer.”

thumbnail Terry LaymanMD 1 copy
Terry Layman, MD
Terry Layman, MD joined Marathon Health in 2012 and today serves as Senior Vice President, Corporate Medical Director. Prior to joining Marathon Health, he worked in hospital systems and led private practices in Marion and Fishers, Indiana. Dr. Layman graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine and completed his family medicine residency at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. He is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience as a primary care provider. He is also member of the American Medical Association, the Indiana State Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
As SVP, Corporate Medical Director, Dr. Layman serves on the senior leadership team and provides clinical leadership for our 200+ health centers. Dr. Layman is passionate about delivering patient-centered primary care and continues to dedicate a portion of his time as a provider in one of our health centers. He enjoys taking a holistic perspective, spending the necessary time to fully understand an issue, while working to clarify options and recommendations with his patients.