About five years ago, Scientific American pretty much proved (with various studies and statistics) the value of the primary care doctor to the American health care system. As the article stated back in 2010, “The idea is to have a clinician who knows your health history, will continue caring for you over the long term and can recommend specialists and coordinate your treatment if you need to see them. Primary care can handle the health problems that most people have most of the time.
And the beauty of this primary care doctor is that your primary care doctor doesn’t always have to be your primary care doctor to give you the best care needed. Your primary care doctor can also come in the form of an internist, a pediatrician, a nurse practitioner, or even a physician’s assistant. All of who are ultimately overseen by your doctor, but who have the knowledge and the training to provide with top-quality health care.
These are all point people—a patient’s first contact with health care. And when you have a primary care doctor who sees you regularly, whether for a checkup, a case of the flue, a sore throat, an ear infection, a refill for an asthma inhaler, a sprained ankle, or more chronic medical issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, they also know your history, they have a better, more informed sense of who you are as a person, what you do, how you are emotionally, and so are better able to diagnose and treat common illnesses and minor health issues before they become more serious.
They also offer, out of private offices, community health centers, and hospitals, preventive services such as flu shots, cancer screening, and counseling on diet and smoking, and serve an important role in helping patients with chronic health conditions better manage themselves and their care.
“The greatest benefits,” said the writer in Scientific American, “come to poor and socially disadvantaged groups, but they also extend to the well-to-do.” Even more significantly, as the article also pointed out, “Primary care increases lifespan and decreases disease burden in part because it helps to prevent small problems, such as strep throat, from becoming big ones, such as a life-threatening infection of the heart. Having a regular clinician of that kind makes you a better patient because you trust the advice you receive and so are more likely to follow it; it also gives you access to someone who attends to the whole person, not just one body part. In addition, having someone to coordinate your care can be critical if you have multiple providers—as, for example when you leave the hospital.”
This is the value not only of having a primary care doctor—one doctor who is your doctor and your doctor only—but the value of your doctor either being part of a larger team of other primary care physicians or because his or her practice has other primary care doctors on his or team. When you have a primary care doctor you know that other physicians and other medical staff within the practice also know your medical history. Your primary care doctor and his or her peers can then more easily spot discrepancies in your health and recommend whatever lifestyle changes might be needed to prevent future complications that might require more specialized care.
The other major difference between a primary care doctor and someone you’d typically be seen by at an urgent care clinic or the emergency room is that your primary care doctor isn’t there for you only when you’re sick or injured. She’s there, really, to keep you from getting sick or injured. Your primary care doctor’s primary job is to keep you healthy, to prevent anything from happening to you. You wouldn’t, for example, go to the emergency room for an annual checkup. That just makes no sense. But that’s one of the best reasons to have a primary care doctor: not just see them annually but to pick their brains on how you can take even better care of yourself. To learn from them. In a sense, to get to know them. Maybe not as well as they know you but in a way that connects you to them, in a way that allows for a relationship, an understanding of who you are.
As pointed out in other studies, too, “In areas of the country where there are more primary care providers per person, death rates for cancer, heart disease, and stroke are lower and people are less likely to be hospitalized. Another big plus: health care costs are lower when people have a primary care provider overseeing their care and coordinating all the tests, procedures, and follow-up care.”
And again, as cited in Scientific American, “Studies in the 1990s showed that those parts of the U.S. that had more primary care physicians for a given population had lower mortality rates for cancer, heart disease or stroke—three major causes of premature death—even after controlling for certain lifestyle factors.” And another study showed that “having a usual source of care—a primary care provider or clinic—significantly decreased a person’s risk of going untreated for high blood pressure or high cholesterol whether or not the individual had insurance.”
Lastly, health care costs have proven to be lower among people who have a primary care doctor—someone who handles their care and can oversee and coordinate whatever tests, procedures, or follow-up care their patient may need outside the care of their primary care doctor.
All in all, your primary care doctor is your best preventive medicine.