As adults, when we see our primary care provider for check-ups, it usually means rolling up our sleeves. Blood work is a part of most well visits, even when we’re healthy. But what are doctors looking for? And how often do we need to get blood drawn?
What Are We Looking For With Routine Blood Work?
With most routine blood work, we’re trying to catch early warning signs of disease–before symptoms arise. The tests your practitioner orders will depend on your age and sex, along with your medical history and family risk factors. Baseline tests check for blood sugar levels, blood cell counts, and metabolic function (how your body converts what you eat and drink into energy). Your doctor will generally order panels that test for several things with one draw. Here are some of the most common blood tests we see in primary care:
- A Complete Blood Count (CBC) checks red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. A CBC can identify conditions including anemia, heart disease, autoimmune disease, leukemia, and other cancers.
- A Basic Metabolic Panel (BMP) checks kidney function, lung function, and blood sugar levels by testing blood filtration, blood sugar, and electrolyte levels. This test can identify common kidney problems, lung problems, and diabetes or pre-diabetes.
- A Complete Metabolic Panel covers the tests included in a BMP with additional tests related to liver function.
- A Lipid Panel checks for cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood and can detect the buildup of plaque in your arteries. This test is an important early screening for coronary artery disease.
Some other frequently ordered tests include:
- Nutrient tests for levels of certain minerals or vitamins: iron and vitamins D and B12 are low in many adults.
- A Thyroid Panel checks the thyroid gland, which regulates crucial hormones and can impact mood, energy level, and metabolism.
- For patients with diabetes, a hemoglobin A1C test offers a more accurate overall picture of blood sugar than basic glucose tests.
What Should I Expect When I Get Bloodwork?
Your doctor may recommend a CBC and BMP every year at your annual well visit. Other tests depend on your age, lifestyle and personal and family history. In most cases, your primary care provider will ask you to fast for 12 hours before your blood draw. This helps avoid fluctuations in blood sugar and other chemical changes that result from eating and drinking. Your primary care practice staff will fill a separate vial for each panel, but often only one needle is required. Your doctor’s office sends samples to a lab and usually gets results in a few days. If one of your baseline blood work tests shows abnormal results, the next step is further testing.
Are Blood Work Recommendations Different for Women and Men?
Most of the baseline blood work tests are the same for women and men. However, timing and needed tests may vary based on sex. For example, men are at greater risk for high cholesterol, so they may need lipid testing earlier than women. Thyroid disorders and low Vitamin D levels are more common in women, so your doctor may recommend adding those to your well visit under certain circumstances.
Does Blood Work Change As We Age?
Many blood tests are the same for all adults, but some may be ordered more frequently as we age. For example, a lipid panel every five years is sufficient for younger adults (unless you have a family history of high cholesterol). However, your doctor may increase testing frequency as you reach your 40s or 50s. Doctors also order thyroid panels more frequently for older adults. Some other blood tests that are common for seniors include:
- PT/INR blood clotting tests for seniors on blood thinners
- BNP peptide tests for heart function
- Ferritin tests for iron levels
- Vitamin levels including B12
On the flip side, your doctor may be more likely to recommend HIV and other tests for sexually transmitted diseases for sexually active young adults.
Routine Blood Work and Primary Care
Understanding each individual’s needs is at the core of patient-centered medicine. Just like in-person or telemedicine visits with your primary care provider, routine blood work helps us understand you and your body. Blood work helps us establish a baseline for essential functions and then follow-up regularly. At Comprehensive Primary Care, we want to make sure everything is on track and catch any potential issues early. We don’t need to perform every single test every year, but some tests are best done annually for consistency. We understand that some patients avoid check-ups because of anxiety. But the best way to prevent stress about doctor visits is to make routine care truly routine, with a focus on wellness. So let’s roll up those sleeves and stay healthy together.