Full medical checkups
A full medical checkup, or full body checkup, is a comprehensive clinical assessment or examination done by a doctor. It can include a medical examination, pathology tests, medical imaging and more. It's intended to detect illnesses early or to prevent them from developing – though in many cases, this isn't possible to do. They can cost thousands of dollars and aren't usually covered by Medicare or private health insurance.
General health checks
A health check is generally covered by Medicare and involves speaking to your doctor about your medical history and lifestyle – for example your diet, physical activity, alcohol intake and smoking history. Health checks are often covered by Medicare as part of national screening programs e.g. cervical, bowel and breast cancer screening programs.
Pros and cons of full medical checkups
- They can provide peace of mind.
- It can encourage you to make positive health changes.
- They may help prevent certain diseases and illnesses.
- No screening test is one hundred percent accurate.
- It can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment.
- Many screening tests are not diagnostic so can lead to more tests.
- They may provide some peace of mind but can't comprehensively stop you from getting all diseases or illnesses.
- They're often very expensive – they usually aren't covered by Medicare of private health insurance.
You can get access to a bunch of free health checks in Australia through Medicare. They can all help identify risk factors early and even catch an illness in its early stages. Here are 10 free or cheap ones.
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.
Women aged between 25 and 74 who have never had a CST or Pap test should get the CST at their 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)
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is open to Australians aged 50 to 74 years of age. They are sent a free test that's done at home. All eligible Medicare card holders 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.
Mole mapping is another option. It 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+)
Breast cancer is the second largest cause of cancer death in Australian women after lung cancer. If you're 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.
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
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'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. There are also lots of free hearing tests available in Australia which can help you find it if you need to see a specialist or not.
7. Blood pressure test (Everyone)
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 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 a Medicare card is entitled to an eye exam every three years at the least. If you're over 65 or are showing signs of an eye condition, you can get the benefit more often.
But that's where Medicare stops because it doesn't cover eyeglasses or contacts. Each state will have a scheme that may cover these devices for you but usually only if you're a senior. If you need eyeglasses and you're not eligible for a state scheme, private health insurance is the way to go – an extras policy can cover you for frames, prescription lenses and contact lenses.