Does Primary Care really matter?
When I was a little girl, my most prized possession was my Fisher Price hospital. I took it with me everywhere I went and I would play for hours with the little round blue people with their surgical masks and blonde ponytails. Even though the figure dressed like a doctor was clearly a man and the ponytailed figures represented the nurses and other caregivers, I would let any of the figures play any of the roles, including patient. I imagined that all of healthcare happened in the hospital and it was the coolest place in the world. I couldn’t wait to become one of the little blue people in the hospital and take care of sick and injured people.
I carried this dream through grade school, junior high, high school and finally college. I studied a lot and learned as much as I could about science, human relationships and service to others. I completed four years of medical school after college and three more years of on-the-job training called residency before I could take care of people like the doctor in my Fisher Price hospital. My ideas about healthcare, and how and where it is delivered, were shaped by the experiences I had along the way. I realized that what drew me to medicine in the first place was the value of the relationships that doctors have with their patients over time and developing those relationships doesn’t happen in a hospital. Neither does the majority of healthcare. Following a family’s health journey through the years and multiple generations is foundational in the delivery of quality and affordable healthcare and it is the essence of Family Medicine.
The phrase “primary care physician” has generally referred to family physicians, general internal medicine physicians, OB/GYNs and pediatricians but care delivery is a team effort that includes nursing, pharmacy, behavioral health, gerontology, community health and YOU – the patient! Primary care is the place where most people enter into the healthcare system for evaluation of a new problem, for maintenance of ongoing problems, to access preventative healthcare services and for coordination of care when multiple specialties are involved. Primary care visits account for more than half of the 900 million healthcare visits made annually in the U.S. In spite of that, less than 5% of the $4.1 trillion spent on healthcare in the U.S. annually is spent on primary care.
Studies show that if you have a primary care physician, you are 19% less likely to die prematurely and you will spend 33% less on healthcare than individuals who only see specialists. It makes sense that partnering with a healthcare provider who takes the time to become familiar with your health history, and that of your family, can provide efficient care that is aligned with your healthcare values. Naturally this leads to better health outcomes because primary care providers are well prepared to take care of the whole of you. Family physicians are required to get at least 50 hours of education credits annually, take a certification exam every 7-10 years and complete 3-5 learning modules in each 3-year certification cycle. This keeps us at the leading edge of best practices in care delivery.
So, if you are someone who only goes to the doctor when you are sick, haven’t seen a doctor in a decade, or had your last six healthcare visits in the Emergency Room or Urgent Care, let me urge you to take the time to find “your” primary care provider. Don’t be afraid to interview providers and find one that aligns with your healthcare values and makes you feel like you have a trusted health advisor. Once you have found your person, take the time to visit them at least annually. In times like these, when reliable healthcare information can be difficult to find and guidelines are in flux, don’t you and your family deserve to have a reliable, well-educated source of accurate healthcare information at your fingertips? Primary care is where it’s at.