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10 health checks you shouldn’t overlook

These health checks can be free with Medicare.

Updated

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Let's face it, preventing an illness is far better than trying to cure one.

Luckily for us, there are a number of free health checks in Australia that can help identify risk factors early so we can take steps to prevent illnesses from happening. At the very least, we may catch an illness in its early stages and have a better go at managing or stopping its spread.

Here are the 10 free or cheap health checks available in Australia:

1. Cervical cancer screening (Women 25-74)

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer in women since the number one risk factor, the presence of the HPV virus, can be identified years before it leads to cancer. To find out if you're at risk, you need a cervical screening test (CST), which has replaced the old Pap test.

If you are female, between 25 and 74 and have never had a CST or Pap test, you should get the CST at your first opportunity and every five years after that. If you've already had the Pap test, you can wait two years before having your first CST.

While this is all covered by Medicare, you won’t be able to choose your own doctor to perform the test. That’s why some women choose to use private health insurance. The right extras cover will pay for your CST and let you choose your doctor.

2. Bowel cancer screening (Anyone 50-74)

More than 4% of Aussies will develop bowel cancer in their lifetimes according to the Australian Department of Health. To bring this number down, the government has created the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP).

Currently, most Medicare card holders born before 31 December 1964 will receive a free at-home bowel screening kit in the mail or by contacting the NBCSP information line. When the program is fully implemented in 2020, all eligible Medicare card holders aged 50-74 will get their test in the mail every two years.

If your test detects blood, or if you actually see blood in your stool at any time, this could be an early indicator of bowel cancer and you should see your GP immediately (but don't fret too much, as it could also be something relatively harmless like a haemorrhoid). Your GOP will refer you to have a colonoscopy, which Medicare will cover.

3. Skin cancer screening (Everyone)

Australia has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, but there is no formal screening program for the disease. The best thing you can do is to get familiar with your skin and keep an eye out for changes in the skin, including the following:

  • Crusty sores that don't heal
  • Small discoloured lumps
  • New moles or freckles that change in appearance

If you notice anything, go to your GP who can take a sample of your skin tissue for further examination. Medicare will cover your GP visit and the biopsy.

A relatively new procedure called mole mapping aims to detect skin cancer early by scanning your body for moles using high-tech magnification and photographic equipment, and then tracking changes in the moles over time. Medicare does not currently cover this and not all private health insurers will cover it. If you are interested in a policy that covers mole mapping, you'll need to ask the insurer directly.

4. Breast cancer screening (Women 40+)

As of 2017, breast cancer was the number one most diagnosed cancer in Australia, making breast cancer screening especially important. In fact, early detection can lead to a significant increase in the chances of survival. If you are a woman who's over 40, you can get a free mammogram (the test that identifies breast cancer) once every two years through the government's BreastScreen Australia initiative. By the time you hit 50, they will even send you reminders to ensure you're up to date. That’s how important it is.

5. Prostate cancer screening (Men 50+)

One out of seven Australian men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer by the time they turn 85, and almost 3,300 die every year from the disease. The most common way to screen for prostate cancer is by taking the prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test, but that will only tell you that you're susceptible to the disease and it can return false positives that lead to unnecessary and even harmful follow-up treatments.

For that and other reasons, the PSA is not given out to the entire population of men as a way to reduce the overall rates of prostate cancer. Instead, you should only have the test after you've consulted with your doctor who can first do a rectal exam and look at other risk factors like genetics.

If you move forward with the exam, Medicare will cover you for one PSA test per year if you don't have a history of cancer, or multiple PSA tests per year if you do. Either way, you'll need a referral from your doctor.

6. Hearing test

By 2050, one in four Australians will suffer hearing loss in some form, largely driven by Australia's ageing population. Since age is such a major factor in hearing loss, pensioners have access to a wide range of government-subsidised services from hearing tests to hearing aids to follow-up support through the Department of Health's Hearing Services Program. A few other groups can also access these services, including members of the Australian Defence Force and people receiving the Centrelink Sickness Allowance.

If you are eligible, you can apply on the Department of Health website, and if you are approved, you will receive a voucher to pay for a hearing test and some of the other hearing-related products and services you need.

If you're not eligible, private health insurance could be the way to go. Many extras policies offer hearing aid cover and may even provide member-exclusive discounts for hearing aids and hearing tests.

7. Blood pressure test (Everyone)

High blood pressure is a major risk factor in heart disease, and heart disease is the number one cause of death in Australia. That makes it really important to have your blood pressure tested regularly.

A high one-off blood pressure result isn’t necessarily alarming. It’s more of a problem when it is high for a prolonged period of time, and you have other risk factors such as high cholesterol or a family history of heart disease.

Every GP will have a blood pressure monitor in their office, or you can find a free, self-service blood pressure monitor in many pharmacies around the country. It's one of the easiest tests you can get, the results are available immediately and, best of all, it's free!

If your doctor thinks your high or low blood pressure is cause for concern, they may advise you to take your blood pressure at home. Medicare won’t pay for a home device except in rare cases, so to get this covered, you would need a private extras policy.

8. Cholesterol test (Everyone 20+)

High cholesterol, especially the "bad" kind, is one of the many factors doctors look at when assessing your risk of heart disease. They test this through a blood test called a lipid profile that looks at the levels of HDL cholesterol (commonly called good cholesterol), LDL cholesterol (commonly called bad cholesterol) and triglycerides (also bad).

If you have too much of the bad stuff, the doctor will help suggest lifestyle changes that can help you get those numbers lower. If you have other risk factors like high blood pressure, family history of heart disease or a smoking habit, the doctor may also suggest medication.

Everyone with Medicare Part B can get a free cholesterol screening every five years. Private health insurance usually won't cover a blood test like this unless it's performed while you are admitted to a hospital as an inpatient.

9. Genetic screening (Everyone whose close family has a history of genetic disease)

Many diseases are hereditary in nature, and that makes it possible to test your genes to see if you are at risk for one of these conditions. Examples of a hereditary disease include Alzheimer's, thyroid cancer, breast cancer and leukaemia.

Just because you have a genetic trait that suggests you are vulnerable to a disease doesn't mean you will necessarily get the disease. You'll need to have your test done in close consultation with your doctors who will also look at other risk factors.

Medicare will cover genetic testing if other tests point to you possibly having a genetic condition or if you are a first-degree relative of someone else with the condition. Private health will usually not cover genetic testing unless it's needed as part of your inpatient hospital treatment.

10. Eye test (Everyone)

Anyone with bad vision can tell you that life can be pretty hard to navigate without eyeglasses or contacts. Bad vision can affect anyone from young kids to pensioners, and that's why anyone with a Medicare card is entitled to an eye exam every three years at the least. If you are over 65 or are showing signs of an eye condition, you can get the benefit more often.

But that's where Medicare stops because they do not cover eyeglasses or contacts. Each state will have a scheme that may cover these devices for you, but usually only if you are a senior or part of some other vulnerable population. If you need eyeglasses and you're not eligible for one of these state schemes, private health insurance is the way to go. The right extras policy will cover you for frames, prescription lenses and contact lenses.

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Reference:
https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/early-detection/screening-programs/breast-cancer-screening.html
https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/3da1f3c2-30f0-4475-8aed-1f19f8e16d48/20066-cancer-2017.pdf.aspx?inline=true
http://www.health.gov.au/internet/screening/publishing.nsf/Content/prostate-cancer-screening
http://www.hcia.com.au/resources/HCIA.pdf
https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/heart-disease-statistics
Picture: Unsplash - Samuel Zeller

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