Can A Sports Physical Replace A Wellness Exam?

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Before your child takes to the field or hits the courts, chances are you had to take him or her to the doctor’s office for a sports physical as a requirement to join the team. And if your child seems healthy, it may be tempting to put off his or her annual wellness exam. After all, weren’t you just at the doctor’s office? Turns out that each type of visit serves a different purpose and one can’t necessarily replace the other.

Shirlee Kuhl, D.O., who works with pediatric and adolescent patients at Henry Ford Medical Center–Lakeside in Sterling Heights, explains the differences between the two visits.

What Happens at a Wellness Exam

For starters, an annual wellness exam with a pediatrician is more comprehensive than a sports physical. Your doctor will talk about exercise and nutrition with patients and discuss establishing good habits, Dr. Kuhl says.

Another important part of the wellness visit is immunization. “The immunization story is changing all the time,” she says, like the addition of new vaccinations or revised recommendations. “We update the parents with information and keep the child up-to-date on the new guidelines, something that isn’t covered at a sports physical.”

Various screening tests are also part of an annual wellness exam, and certain screenings happen at different ages. Those recommendations are sometimes changing, too, Dr. Kuhl says. It’s recommended teens 16 and up, for example, are tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Cholesterol is scanned pre- and post-puberty now, at ages 11 and 17, she adds.

Doctors will also perform developmental and autism screenings, and evaluate the mental and social aspects of a child’s life to ensure overall well-being at home and at school.

What Happens at a Sports Physical

That doesn’t mean sports physicals aren’t important, too. They certainly serve a purpose. Doctors are often screening for different sports-specific health concerns. Per the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s (MHSAA) sports physical form, doctors look at a student’s health history, family history, cardiovascular risk factors and account for any congenital anomalies that may make it unsafe to participate in activities.

The biggest differentiator between the two exams? “Probably the No. 1 most important reason to do a general wellness visit at a pediatrician’s office is the relationship building,” Dr. Kuhl says. Seeing your doctor regularly establishes a foundation of trust, making for a more comfortable environment to share and discuss vital health information.

“When they come in for a physical, they’re seeing a familiar face. They’re comfortable,” Dr. Kuhl says. “We have a lot of children who don’t want to leave our office.”


Check out more advice on getting your kids ready for sports, and download our 5-2-1-0 Kids! app. It’s a fun way for children to learn the importance of healthy habits.

To find a pediatrician or make an appointment online, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Shirlee Kuhl is a pediatrician and sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Lakeside in Sterling Heights

Categories: ParentWell,FeelWell

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