The Importance of Having a Primary Care Provider

For many people, seeing a primary care physician may seem superfluous if their health condition requires care from a medical specialist.  At first glance, a doctor who only has general knowledge of various medical specialties may seem unnecessary, but these primary care providers serve in many important roles.  Not only can they direct you to the specialist most appropriate for your condition, but they also coordinate care so that there are fewer redundancies and care gaps.

What Is Primary Care?

You have probably heard the term “primary care” repeatedly in medical settings, but you may not fully understand what it covers. Primary care physicians have expertise in family medicine, internal medicine or pediatrics, and serve as the initial point of contact.  In other words, primary care providers are the first doctors you will meet on your health care journey.

Primary care providers offer a number of important health care services including

  • Disease prevention
  • Diagnostic services
  • Health maintenance
  • Patient education
  • Acute or chronic care
  • Counseling
  • Health promotion

In addition to serving as the initial care provider, primary care physicians also play a key role in securing appropriate care. Most health care organizations utilize primary care physicians as gatekeepers for more specialized services. For example, if you injure your knee, you should see a primary care provider who may then produce a referral to a joint specialist or orthopedic surgeon.

Primary care has long been the face of medicine and remains the backbone of modern health care.  General practitioners help health care patients and companies maintain low costs by offering more cost effective primary care services first and recommending pricier specialized services only if necessary.

The State of Primary Care in the U.S.

Primary care is a foundational element of U.S. health care, but this field has been battered in recent years. In 2008, there were 490 million visits to primary care physicians, almost half of all doctor’s office visits, but this percentage has been falling. Currently, one-third of all doctors in the U.S. practice in a primary care field, but only one-fourth of medical school graduates choose primary care.

Fewer students are choosing to practice in primary care because of more lucrative opportunities in medical specialties.  There are also considerably more demands on primary care physicians who must satisfy rigorous regulations as well as patient quotas imposed by employers. The number of primary care physicians who own their own practices and have more control of their careers is dwindling.

This trend has somewhat reversed in recent years. In 2005, there were 196,000 primary care physicians in the U.S., but this has grown to 204,000 in 2015.  However, this increase has failed to keep up with the increase in population in the country; the number of primary care physicians per 100,000 people actually fell from 46.6 in 2005 to 41.4. It is estimated that there will be a shortage of between 7,300 and 43,100 primary care physicians by 2030.

Why Primary Care Is So Important

In an era when so much medical information and services are available online, primary care physicians may seem almost unnecessary, but studies show that these physicians play a vital role in keeping people healthy. One report published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that just 10 more primary care physicians per 100,000 people was enough to lower patient mortality related to cancer, cardiovascular or respiratory issues by 0.9 percent to 1.4 percent—an almost 40 percent decrease in patient mortality.

There are many reasons why primary care produces such a dramatic decrease in patient fatalities, but the most important is the ability of primary care physicians to recognize the early signs of a serious health condition.  By using routine check-ups, patient evaluations and education, primary care physicians can help lower the odds of an early death by 19 percent.

More than extending your life, primary care providers also help you limit your health care costs. People who see primary care physicians instead of just specialists can save almost 33 percent on expenses. A study from a North Carolina ER found that almost 60 percent of people who visit an ER could get the same services through primary care and save from 320 to 720 percent off their ER bill. Another study found that for every dollar spent on primary care, patients saved almost $13 on overall health care expenses.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Primary Care

Most people who bypass primary care physicians do so because they think that they do not need the services of a general practitioner. While it is true that your medical specialist may possess more expertise within their particular area of specialization, they may not have the skills and tools that a  primary care physician may possess in treating multiple conditions.

When visiting your primary care doctor, there are some things you can do to maximize the benefits.

  • Keep a health journal—if you only see your primary care physician intermittently, then you may forget some of the details of your health issues.  Write down important symptoms including severity and duration. When you see your doctor, take your health journal with you so you can discuss all of these issues.
  • Compile your test results—many patients get multiple tests if they see more than one doctor, and if your HMO doesn’t centralize the results, your primary care physician may not have access to them.  That is why you should collect all—or at least those from the past year—of your test results and bring them with you on your visit.
  • Dialogue with your doctor—most primary care physicians are in a rush to get to the next patient, but they will take the time to answer any questions. Take advantage of your time with your physician to discuss your questions and concerns.
  • Take down instructions—if your physician doesn’t provide written instructions, make sure to write them down yourself.  If you are unsure what your doctor intended, ask him or one of his assistants.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information. 

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