By Laura Latzko
Staying healthy is more than just going to seeing a doctor for sick visits.
With annual wellness visits, patients like Venetta Clark can discuss their potential health risks, family histories and status of chronic conditions. Doctors and patients can devise a plan to stay healthy.
The 69-year-old Central Phoenix resident is a patient of Dr. Tara Ostrom, an internal medicine specialist and medical director at Optum Care’s 19th Avenue location.
Optum Care is a nationwide health network with over 50,000 physicians and more than 1,400 clinics around the country. It provides primary care as well as specialty care for patients such as Clark.
Ostrom deems it important to discuss long-term health concerns with her patients.
Clark — who suffers from breathing, blood pressure, kidney and diabetes-related health problems — says regular visits every three months along with annual wellness visits help improve her well-being.
She was introduced to Ostrom after a hospital stay for pneumonia.
“I was going to doctors, telling them about how I was feeling, the fact that I was constantly coughing at night,” Clark says.
“My husband couldn’t get any sleep because I was coughing so much when I caught pneumonia — and nobody was listening. Nobody was paying attention. The doctor told me when I went into the hospital, if I had waited another day, I may not have made it. After that cleared up, I found somebody who was willing to take the time to listen to what I had to say.”
Ostrom says patients of all ages can benefit from annual wellness visits, partnered with other office visits, like Clark.
“We spend so much time investing and planning financially for our future, but it’s really time to take time investing in our future physical health,” Ostrom says.
“We screen for depression and anxiety disorders that may not have come up in other visits, and memory testing is part of some of those wellness visits. It helps you to identify something before it’s a problem so an early intervention can be done.
“Fall prevention is a huge thing, especially with 65 and up, to identify what puts somebody at risk for a fall. You can do physical therapy, order a cane or a walker or anything to prevent that hip fracture, which impacts future quality of life.”
Optum Care proactively reaches out to patients, reminding them of these visits. Often, these appointments are scheduled at the beginning of the year, although some insurances require that wellness visits be at 12-month intervals.
Counseling the patient
With annual wellness visits, Ostrom discusses a variety of topics with patients, including medicine management, lifestyle risks, family health histories and long-term health conditions.
“It’s a counseling visit mostly, where you take a full set of vitals, but most of the entire visit is having a conversation back-and-forth and learning about the patients about all of these different things that usually don’t come up in an office visit,” Ostrom says.
Ostrom says that lifestyle risks often play a major part in a person’s well-being.
“Lifestyle risks are ways that we live our lives that by doing so put us at an increased health risk for the future,” Ostrom says.
“The top ones that we touch on are smoking, to include chewing and vaping. People don’t realize vaping has significant health risks. Alcohol use, trying to get an idea of how much, what’s okay and what’s a bit much. Drug use…. And then how many minutes of exercise every day, fruits and vegetables and healthy diet. And where we are at with weight. By looking at all of those and by having that discussion, I might recommend these particular labs to screen you for high cholesterol, to screen you for diabetes.”
For Clark, to improve her health, she has to stick to a plan that she and Ostrom established.
“When Dr. Ostrom and I first met, we made a contract with each other that I would make my visits when I said I would be there, and she would help keep me well,” she says.
“I would have to say so far, she’s done as excellent job of that. All of the things that were bothering me when I went to see her, we have under control. We have controlled everything but one thing, and that’s my weight.
“One of the things that I’ve found with Dr. Ostrom is that she listens. When I go in there and have a complaint about something, she takes the time to investigate it. She also keeps me on track for what visits I need to have, when I need to go through my mammogram. I have a specialist for everything but when I really want to get down to the nitty gritty, I go to see Dr. Ostrom because she will look into it.”
During annual wellness visits, Ostrom often asks patients about vaccinations like the flu, pneumonia, tetanus and shingles. Recently, COVID-19 vaccines have become part of this conversation.
Under the hood
Ostrom says the annual visits require more time, if possible.
“If you think about if you are taking your car in for the 20,000-mile checkup, the car is running fine,” she says. “You are taking it in to see what needs to be checked if it hits 20,000 miles. That’s what that annual wellness/annual physical is.
“We are just seeing that everything is going well but what should we get checked out?”
Annual wellness visits usually require physicals, cancer screenings, tests such as bone density scans and bloodwork.
Through labs, Ostrom can detect if patients are deficient in certain areas. Clark, for example, has low magnesium levels.
These visits are important — especially for folks who are high risk for conditions such as breast, prostate, testicular, ovarian, lung or skin cancer because of their ages, lifestyles or family histories.
She reminds patients of other exams, like ophthalmological or dental visits. Through these appointments, Clark found out early that she is developing cataracts.
“That is an opportunity to find out what’s going on,” Ostrom says.
“It may be that they didn’t want to tell me that they were having some side effects, or maybe it was expensive, and they didn’t feel comfortable telling me. But it’s an opportunity to say, ‘I think this is important. Let’s maybe find something else if this isn’t working out. Or if you forget, let’s talk about it.’”
Clark says she visits with Ostrom with a list of questions at the ready.
“I have her really explain things to me, not just on the surface, but we can go a little bit deeper,” Clark says.
“The kinds of questions that I want to know is what type of impact me taking this medicine has with the medication I’m already taking, those types of questions,” Clark says.
In the age of COVID-19, wellness visits are often relegated to telemed, which has done “quite well,” according to Ostrom.
She found that many individuals liked the convenience of the video conversations during that time.
“It’s a longer conversation,” she says. “That is one of the things that you can do well on video. Most of my patients have the ability to check their blood pressure at home. We are able to do a good portion of the wellness visit and determine based off this conversation, we should get some bloodwork done. I might have the patient come into the office, and we get their height and weight when they are getting their blood drawn. It actually made patients happy, sitting in their living rooms having those longer conversations, especially last year when there weren’t COVID vaccines, and people were afraid to be any place for a long period of time.”