Wellness Exam. School Physical. Sports Physical: What’s the Difference?

At first glance, school-entry physicals, school-sports physicals and wellness exams seem very similar. But each serves a different purpose in evaluating and managing a child’s health. 

Annual Well Visit / Wellness Exam: A wellness exam is a much more extensive evaluation than sports or school physicals. In addition to reviewing the child’s medical history and conducting a thorough physical examination, a wellness exam also evaluates the child’s growth and development for comparison to prior annual exams. The doctor will likely discuss nutritional health and review preventative care with you and/or your child as well. This includes providing or scheduling any applicable immunizations and health screenings for things like lead exposure, diabetes, anemia and cholesterol problems. 

School Physical: Students starting school at area public schools for the first time are required to have a school-entry physical to ensure that they pose no health threat to classmates. The evaluation process for a school physical is similar to that of the sports physical, but without the need to determine fitness for athletics. 

Sports Physical: The purpose of an annual sports physical is to evaluate a student’s health and wellness to decide whether it’s safe and healthy for the child to actively participate in sports. The physician thoroughly evaluates the child’s medical history and asks about any existing chronic conditions (i.e. asthma, heart conditions, etc.), previous surgeries or difficulties participating in strenuous exercise. The doctor also conducts a physical examination, looking closely at things like the musculoskeletal system and how the heart and lungs function. 

The assessment will determine whether the child is cleared for sports, with or without any limitation. If there are any precautions to consider, the physician will refer the child to a specialist, like a cardiologist, for further evaluation before clearing him/her for sports. 

Sports physicals and school physicals can be thought as “fit-for-participation” or “fit-for-school” exams, but all children — regardless of extracurricular activities or schooling — should receive an annual wellness exam. In fact, all people — regardless of age — should schedule a wellness visit with a primary care physician each year. (Most health insurances cover annual wellness exams under preventative care.)

Where to Go for Child Wellness Exams & Student Physicals

A child’s yearly wellness exam should be completed by a primary care physician or pediatrician. However, school sports physicals and school-entry physicals for children who are up to date on immunizations can be handled at an urgent care center. (Sarasota Memorial Urgent Care Centers provide $20 school-entry physicals and sports physicals for grades K-12) at all 6 locations in Sarasota County.)

Urgent care centers should not serve as a primary care substitute. They do not provide all immunizations, disease screening or developmental assessments for children. (Students who are not up to date on immunizations should see a primary care doctor for their school physicals.)

It’s important to keep a regular schedule for well visits, especially for children. Talk to your pediatrician’s office to find out when a child is due for his/her well visit, and make an appointment. If you do not have a primary physician or pediatrician, SMH can help you find one; just use the Find A Doc feature on the homepage, or call (941) 917-7777 to speak with our physician referral team.