Not Seeing This Doc? You Could Be Shortchanging Your Health

Primary care providers do more than just checkups. Here’s why you need to visit one regularly.

Even though synonyms for the word “primary” include “chief,” “key,” “crucial,” and “most important,” 30 percent of American adults and nearly half of millennials don’t have a primary care provider (PCP). Not only does access to primary care help you live longer and healthier, it may literally mean the difference between life and death.

In a nutshell, a PCP is the point person who guides your health and well-being. Unlike specialists who focus on a single organ, condition or age group, PCPs are Jacks or Jills of all trades: They are the doctors who do your checkups and treat any garden-variety nuisances like sore throats and rashes. These physicians—often internists, pediatricians or family practitioners—all receive at least three years of training after medical school focused on primary care.

But PCPs can also help you manage chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, arthritis and diabetes. They can also treat injuries, perform minor surgery, conduct gynecological exams and sometimes even deliver babies.

“Head to toe, from anxiety issues to joint issues, we’re trained to see and treat practically everything,” says Lauren Daniels, MD, a board-certified family physician at Southern Family Medical Center who also occasionally works with Doctors Hospital of Augusta, both in Augusta, Georgia. Hence the reason primary care should always be your first stop in non-emergency situations.

As impressive as their medical expertise can be, though, it’s really the integral role PCPs play that has such a major impact on your health. These are the doctors with whom you get to develop long-term, sometimes even life-long, relationships and who get to know your health history better than anyone. “As a caregiver, I want to know everything along the way,” says Dr. Daniels.

According to the researchers behind a 2018 BMJ Open study, it’s the accumulation of this type of knowledge that allows doctors to provide better-informed and personally tailored advice that likely keeps people ticking longer.

Even when a condition is beyond their scope and you do need to see a specialist, your PCP can make a referral to someone they have a working relationship with. They can then oversee your care with that doctor. Staying with a consistent office or practice gives patients a “medical home” which can be a welcome antidote to what can be a fragmented and depersonalized healthcare system. More importantly, this continuity provides tangible benefits that add up to better health.

So, whether you’re looking to find a PCP or you have one but don’t see him or her often enough, here are a few reasons you should visit a PCP on the regular.

You may receive more comprehensive care

One of the key benefits of seeing a PCP is that they focus more on the whole person rather than just a specific problem, and that can translate into more holistic care for patients.

Indeed, research shows that women who choose an OBGYN as their primary physician may miss out on more comprehensive care. In a June 2014 analysis, PCPs were nearly 2.5 times as likely as OBGYNs to address such problems as mental health issues, metabolic conditions, and circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and skin diseases during a PCP visit compared to a preventive gynecologic visit.

Surprised to see mental health issues on that list? PCPs aren’t exaggerating when they say they see it all. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-fifth of all primary care visits address mental health concerns.

When you’ve been going to a PCP who knows your medical history inside and out, they can more easily recognize a change in your health as well. An 2018 BMJ study of primary care physician supply found that more PCPs were associated with improved health outcomes across areas including all-cause mortality, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and infant mortality, as well as low birth weight, life expectancy, and self-rated health.

“When I’ve been seeing patients for a long time, I can tell when something is off with them, that they’re not their usual selves—even if they don’t always know it themselves,” says Daniels. “It makes my sixth sense a little sharper and it signals me to dig a little deeper to figure out what might be wrong.”

The reverse is also true: Monitoring changes through the years allow PCPs to know when something that might otherwise seem suspicious is actually fine and just a natural variant.

You may develop better health habits

Your PCP can help you focus on achieving many healthy behaviors, including not smoking (or kicking the habit), getting flu shots, being physically active, eating healthier, even using seat belts—possibly because the primary focus of their practice is prevention.

“First and foremost, my role is to make sure people are doing the right things to stay healthy,” says Daniels. PCPs stay on top of things like whether you got your mammogram, colonoscopy, tetanus booster and skin check. But they often go beyond such measures in the interest of patient health. For instance, because obesity is significantly related to most chronic health problems, Daniels devotes about a quarter of her practice to weight management. These types of strategies seem to be working, as research shows people who have PCPs are healthier, regardless of their initial health.

You can find your way to the specialist you need

A PCP can always provide a referral should you need one, but often they can address your health issues themselves and eliminate the need for additional appointments. In fact, having a relationship with a PCP can mean less use of specialists and visits to the emergency room. One 2006 study in Health Affairs found that people with a PCP rather than a specialist as a personal physician had 33 percent lower annual health care spending and a 19 percent lower mortality risk.

Other times, though, your PCP will want you to go see a specialist as soon as possible. When that happens, she can make the right connection and then coordinate your care.

“I always tell my patients, ‘I’m not going to do your spinal surgery, but I want to be able to recognize when it’s time for you to talk to a surgeon’—and then find you two referrals if that’s what it takes to make you comfortable with having the procedure,” says Daniels.

Most specialists will do a thorough review of your history and look at all your medications, but sometimes they may be more focused on a specific system. “You need someone who’s looking at the whole picture,” explains Daniels.

You can save money

A lot of insurance companies provide incentives—lower premiums, contributions to your health savings account, gym memberships, even free fitness trackers—for having recommended check-ins and screening tests. But beyond that, a few studies show that coordinated care through your PCP can save you money and reduce your overall healthcare costs, likely because people tend to become healthier as a result of seeing their PCP.

It can be difficult to comprehend potential money lost due to health issues, but a good example is diabetes. People with diagnosed diabetes incur about $17,000 a year in medical expenses. Sixty percent of those costs are estimated to be the result of hospital admissions and treatment of complications—and that’s where regularly seeing a PCP comes in.

“If I check your sugar and it’s slightly elevated, I can do an intervention that gets you back to where your sugars are normal versus coming to me with full-blown diabetes that’s already affecting your kidneys and causing numbness in your feet,” says Daniels.

How to find a primary care physician

Your PCP will hopefully be involved in your care for a long time, so it’s important to choose someone you trust. “As a physician, knowledge is power. The more I know about you, the better I’m able to serve and care for you,” says Daniels. “If you’re not comfortable telling me everything, I’d rather you see someone you are comfortable with.”

When looking for a PCP, start by asking friends, family and other health professionals for recommendations within your network. Rather than just getting a name, ask about the person’s experience with the doctor: What do they like about their physician?

Does the doctor give her full attention and take time to answer questions?

It’s worth noting that PCPs are in short supply—there are currently at least 18,000 too few PCPs for the number of people who need them, a gap that may increase to as many as 49,000 by 2030. Due to certain constraints, PCPs often don’t get as much time with patients as they would like.

When investigating physicians, keep your unique health needs in mind. Some PCPs may have special areas of interest, say, in diabetes care. Though she practices full-spectrum family medicine, Daniels takes particular interest in women’s health and adolescent care. Other PCPs may be specially trained to care for older adults, something that may be attractive if you’re nearing the age of 60.

Of course, the best way to get a good feel for a physician is to schedule a visit. Ideally, you’ll see the doctor when you’re not sick. “It’s important to initially see your PCP when you’re well and not dealing with a health crisis, so we have a baseline for you,” says Daniels. If you don’t click for some reason, trust your instincts and look for someone else.

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