Despite the fact that they are eligible for free annual checkups designed to prevent illness or catch it in its earliest stages, the overwhelming majority of Medicare patients do not take advantage of this opportunity.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services covered a mere 298,000 annual wellness visits from the first of the year to March 23. Unless vastly more seniors begin using the service, Medicare will cover visits for approximately 1.3 million patients this year, less than 3 percent of the eligible Medicare population.

In a similar trend, an initial “Welcome to Medicare” exam, which has been available since 2005, has also seen a lack of participation. Despite the fact that more than 2 million seniors join the program each year, a meager 100,000 or so exams are billed to the program yearly.

One stumbling block in getting preventative care to more Medicare beneficiaries may be a simple lack of awareness, on both the part of the patient and the doctor. But many doctors who know about the service don’t offer them or complain about the time and resources they must expend for exams they consider superfluous to the regular annual checkups they already provide.

The wellness exams nonetheless represent an important shift in Medicare, which has heretofore focused on the treatment of disease rather than the prevention of it. Wellness visits, assuming that they eventually catch on, will encourage patients to take ownership of their health by taking a forward-looking approach. They will give doctors the opportunity to discuss such things as smoking cessation, nutrition and exercise as well as monitor a patient’s cognitive wellbeing. CMS hopes that these services will become more widespread and pay dividends for patients as well as taxpayers.