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Life insurance medical exams

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Ready to buy life insurance? Not so fast — you might first have to undergo a medical exam to help the insurer estimate your life expectancy and determine your rate. This is because life insurance companies use a process called underwriting where they determine the potential risk of having to actually pay out your life insurance policy. The longer you will live, the less likely they’ll need to do so (especially if you have term life insurance) – so they consider you a better bet.

A life insurance medical exam isn’t necessarily a must for getting a policy. But if you’re generally healthy, this portion of the underwriting process can usually help you get the most affordable premiums possible.

What is a life insurance medical exam?

A life insurance health exam is a simple physical. It’s a part of the underwriting process, or the process your insurer has you go through in order to determine your specific characteristics and risks. Using this information helps them determine how much they will charge you for your insurance policy.

As a result, the life insurance physical exam is a step you’ll most likely need to take before you can get a life insurance policy. (That assumes the policy requires a medical exam. We’ll get into no-exam life insurance later.)

Instead of going to your doctor for this exam, you can usually arrange to have the life insurance company send a technician to your home or office at a time that works for your schedule. The exam itself usually lasts about 30 minutes. There are two parts to this exam:

1. Medical questionnaire

The technician will ask you a series of health-related questions designed to give the life insurance company an idea of how healthy you are. There are usually questions about any medications you take, how often you take them and their dosages. Other questions may cover what doctors you’ve seen recently, their recommendations and whether you’ve been hospitalized recently. It is vitally important to be truthful when answering these questions, because if the insurer finds out that you were lying after the policy has been issued, it may discontinue your coverage. There should be no discrepancies between your answers to these questions and the information you supplied on your application.

2. Physical examination

The technician will give you a physical exam, where they check your height, weight, pulse, blood pressure and also take blood and urine samples. They will also check your driver’s license to verify your identity. If you are older or are applying for a large death benefit, they may also do an EKG to measure the electrical activity in your heart. If you are a male over age 50, you may also be asked to undergo a prostate specific antigen (PSA) test. In rare instances you may also be asked for a saliva sample or to get X-rayed.

The technician will then use your height and weight to calculate your body mass index (BMI) and the liquid samples to screen for a variety of possible health conditions. These conditions can include:

  • High blood pressure – This condition has often been labeled as a “silent killer”. Hypertension can shorten the lifespan of the insured in many cases.
  • High cholesterol – This condition can lead to heart disease as it makes it harder for your heart to pump blood through your veins. High cholesterol can be controlled with proper medications.
  • Diabetes – Even type 2 diabetes can raise your life insurance premiums. Type 1 diabetes will most likely reduce you by one or two underwriting classifications.
  • HIV/AIDS – Being HIV positive is not the death sentence that it used to be, but it’s still a major health condition. Virtually all life insurance carriers will test for this condition.
  • Nicotine usage – Using any form of tobacco can shorten one’s lifespan and lead to a variety of health issues. A check in this box is sure to raise your policy premiums.
  • Recreational drugs – If you use other drugs besides tobacco or alcohol, then you may be declined for coverage. Cocaine, meth and other hard drugs can lead to all kinds of health problems, so insurers always check for this.
  • High triglycerides – This indicator is like high cholesterol in that it can indicate health problems down the road. Fortunately, also as with high cholesterol, this condition can be treated with the proper medication.
  • High liver enzymes – If you are a heavy drinker, then your liver enzymes may be outside of the normal range. Cutting back on or eliminating this habit may improve your underwriting classification.

All in all, the life insurance health exam should be a quick and convenient process for you. It allows your insurer to check for a broad range of health conditions. This, in turn, helps them determine your life expectancy and, consequently, your premiums.

Why is the life insurance medical exam important?

Your life insurer directly leans on your medical exam results to determine your premiums. “Generally speaking, the healthiest 20 percent get rated ‘preferred plus,’ the next 30 percent get ‘preferred,’ the borderline 30 percent rate ‘select,’ and the remaining 20 percent get ‘standard,’” explains Geoffrey Gordon, President of the Andrew G. Gordon Insurance Agency in Norwell, Massachusetts.

“Depending on your age, each step up from standard will save you, on average, 20 percent on your premium as a rule of thumb,” he adds.

Better health stats make a big difference

If you are obese or use tobacco, alcohol or drugs, you can kiss “preferred plus” goodbye. At the same time, something as subtle as a slight elevation in blood pressure can increase your quote by 20 percent, Gordon says. Conversely, making seemingly small changes to improve your health could help you save thousands of dollars over the life of your insurance policy.

Can I get life insurance without a medical exam?

Yes. With simplified issue life insurance or guaranteed issue life insurance, you can skip the medical exam portion of the underwriting process. That said, your insurer relies on the physical to make sure they understand their risk in issuing you a policy. If you skip this step, you can expect to pay more for your health insurance.

There are a few exceptions. Smokers might actually save by choosing a life insurance policy that doesn’t require a physical, for example, or elderly adults might choose no-exam life insurance after being denied a medically underwritten policy. If you’re generally healthy, though, you’ll get the cheapest life insurance by choosing a policy with a life insurance physical exam.

How to prepare for the life insurance health exam

Set yourself up for success during your life insurance physical exam to score the lowest possible premiums on your policy.

Your insurer will probably give you some guidelines in advance of the medical exam. They’ll likely tell you to fast for at least six hours before it, for example. Here are our top tips to help you get the best life insurance medical exam results possible:

  • Schedule your exam in the morning: Since you’ll likely need to fast before your exam, it can be helpful to schedule your physical for first thing in the morning. If you normally do a morning workout, skip it on the day of your exam to make sure your blood pressure levels aren’t elevated.
  • Drink up: Get hydrated leading up to your exam. This will make it easier for your technician to collect the necessary blood and urine samples.
  • Wear short sleeves and lightweight clothing: Since body mass index (BMI) is a health indicator, your insurer will probably want your weight. Do yourself a favor and wear clothes that won’t add unnecessary pounds. Also, wear short sleeves so it’s easier for your technician to take your blood sample.
  • Make changes in advance: If you’ve been wanting a push to make some health strides, this is it. Changes you make before your life insurance physical exam can literally translate to dollars saved. Stop smoking, get into an exercise routine and watch your food choices in the weeks and months leading up to your exam.
  • Have your medical records and contacts on hand: So you can easily answer any questions your technician asks, it can be helpful to have your medical records pulled up on your computer or printed out to reference. Note any family history of medical conditions and procedures you’ve had recently performed.

What comes after the life insurance medical exam?

Your insurer will most likely take a few weeks to process your life insurance medical exam results. They’re not looking for every tiny thing that could be abnormal. Instead, they’re really screening for the major indicators of shorter life expectancy.

There’s a chance your insurer might request a follow-up exam if any of your lab tests come back with unexpected results. Don’t worry. Both you and your insurer want the same thing: for you to get life insurance (they want the money from your premiums, after all). Keep following the steps of the process to move toward the point where your insurer will issue your policy. Usually, the entire underwriting process, even with repeat medical exams, shouldn’t take more than a couple of months.

If you do end up getting denied coverage for a health-related reason, don’t forget that you can explore no-exam medical insurance and get coverage this way.

Frequently asked questions

What do they test for in a life insurance medical exam?

During a life insurance health exam, your insurer looks for common health conditions that impact your longevity. You can expect to be screened for:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Nicotine
  • Recreational drugs

How do I prepare for a life insurance physical?

Mind your insurer’s instructions, then get ready the same way you would prep for a physical at your doctor’s office. Drink plenty of water and wear comfortable, lightweight clothing. It’s also helpful to brush up on your personal and family health history beforehand.

Do I need a life insurance health exam to get coverage?

Not necessarily. There are life insurance options that don’t require a medical exam. That said, these policies are usually more expensive because they skip a step in the underwriting process that insurers rely on to best understand your life expectancy.

Will I need to go to a doctor’s office to get my life insurance medical exam?

No. Many insurers want to make this process as convenient as possible. They have medical technicians who can come to you and perform your medical exam at the time and location of your choosing.

Written by
Mark Cussen
Contributing writer
Mark Cussen is a former contributing writer for Bankrate. Mark writes about a range of topics related to insurance.