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The difference between well-child checks vs. sports physicals

Dr. Linda Couillard explains why these two common pediatric exams are not one and the same

The Memorial Hospital at Craig reports three more COVID-19 patients have died in the last few weeks.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

As the beginning of the school year and fall sports get underway, student-athletes will be due for their yearly sports physicals. However, it’s a common misconception that this type of exam can substitute for a child’s annual wellness exam.

Although your child is still meeting with a medical professional during a sports physical, the exam that is performed is not quite as in-depth or comprehensive as a well-child check with a pediatrician or family practice provider.



Dr. Linda Couillard, pediatrician at Memorial Regional Health, emphasizes to parents every year that a sports physical does not and should not suffice for a child’s annual exam. So yes, even if your child receives a sports physical, they should also visit with their pediatrician that same year.

But why? Here are the main key differences between the two exams, when they’re needed and what is covered during each service.

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Sports physicals

A sports physical is medical clearance for a child to participate in a school-related sport. This brief exam evaluates a child’s musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems to ensure they do not have any health conditions that could prevent them from safely participating in their sport of choice. The scope of the exam is focused on the child’s health in relation to physical activity.

Areas of focus during these exams include:

  • Measurement of height and weight
  • Basic vision and hearing
  • Basic heart health and blood pressure
  • Muscle and bone health, including flexibility and strength

Sports physicals are very limited. For example, in the span of three hours on Aug. 5, MRH providers performed nearly 100 sports physicals. During an average work week, Dr. Couillard and her team couldn’t perform anywhere close to that many well-child checks, even if they were scheduled back-to-back. Well-child exams simply require more time — and that’s a good thing.

Well-child checks

A well-child exam is an extensive annual assessment of a child’s general health, including their overall wellness, growth and development.

During the complete physical examination, a pediatrician or provider will review your child’s health history and evaluate their sleeping and eating habits and mental health. They will administer any immunizations that your child is due for; perform a photo vision screen; and complete any recommended screening labs, dependent on your child’s age, for conditions such as anemia, lead exposure and cholesterol.

Due to the one-on-one nature of the exam, your child will receive individualized attention from their provider, allowing for more in-depth examinations of specific health conditions.

“It’s vital for children to receive their annual well-child check, even if they are not due for vaccines,” Dr. Couillard said. “Wellness exams are an incredibly important part of their health and safety.”

Well-child checks also provide an opportunity for children to become comfortable with their provider and other healthcare staff — whether they’re at the clinic for a routine exam or a sick visit. When they know what to expect and are familiar with the clinic, children are generally less anxious or stressed to see their provider.

“You may not notice how much your child changes year after year, but children grow and develop so much in just 365 days,” Dr. Couillard concluded. “It’s important for us as parents to ensure they are progressing as they should. Our team is always happy to see our patients every year to catch up on their health and wellness.”

Pediatrics at MRH

Don’t forget to schedule your child’s annual well-child check! Even if your child has already had a sports physical performed for the school year, it’s important they visit their pediatrician or family medicine provider once per year.

Children should have an annual exam with their provider every year — even the years in which they are not due for immunizations. By visiting with a medical professional once per year, you can ensure they are growing and developing in a healthy manner.

To schedule an appointment or to learn more about pediatric services at Memorial Regional Health, call 970-826-2480 or go to memorialregionalhealth.com/healthcare-services/pediatrics.


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