Why Preventive Care Matters

For starters, regular wellness visits can help you live longer.

doctor talking with patient

Medically reviewed in June 2022

Updated on March 7, 2023

There’s no denying it: Using preventive health care services is key to improving overall well-being and extending life expectancy, as well as keeping health care costs to a minimum. These services may include screenings for diseases such as colon cancer and depression, immunizations like flu and pneumonia shots, and vital tests for blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, Americans are meeting with their healthcare providers for these clinical services at approximately half the recommended rate.

The stages of preventive care

There are three stages of preventive care, according to Darria Long Gillespie, MD, an emergency medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center: “Stage one, or primary prevention, is about preventing you from getting a condition in the first place."

These strategies include receiving scheduled vaccines and being informed about the powerful impacts of healthy habits. “We are learning that 70 to 80 percent of all chronic conditions that we develop are due to our lifestyle choices,” says Dr. Long Gillespie. “But if you flip one of those lifestyle choices, you cut your risk by 50 percent.” Actions that fall under this category include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Losing weight
  • Improving nutrition
  • Getting adequate physical activity
  • Implementing stress management techniques
  • Practicing safer sex
  • Limiting alcohol use
  • Taking proper safety precautions (such as wearing bike helmets and seat belts)

Stage two, also known as secondary prevention, involves diagnosing a condition early on, and treating that condition to stop it from progressing. “Being diagnosed at this stage impacts both survival and the disease discomfort of the treatment,” says Long Gillespie. "For example, someone diagnosed with early breast cancer has a five-year survival rate of 90 percent, but five-year survival rates for cancers that are diagnosed at more advanced stages are significantly lower."

The third, or tertiary, stage occurs when you're diagnosed with a condition, and your healthcare provider's (HCP's) priority becomes helping you avoid its complications.

“Let’s take diabetes," Long Gillespie says. "Primary prevention is to prevent you from getting diabetes, secondary prevention is being diagnosed early on and starting treatment, and tertiary prevention is about treating diabetes so you don’t get the downstream effects, like kidney disease, blindness, and heart disease.”

Understanding the importance of these three categories explains why making an appointment with your HCP only when symptoms appear is the wrong approach. “You’ve missed primary and secondary prevention and you’re already into tertiary—which means you’re already on your way to developing complications,” she stresses.

Other vital reasons for preventive services

Keep in mind that not all health conditions come with symptoms.

“Hypertension is a silent killer because it’s silent until it causes something that can kill you, such as a heart attack or a stroke,” says Long Gillespie. “I’m an emergency room doctor and I have seen patients come in and they have blood pressure of 185 over 115, for instance—and they had no idea because they’ve been living this way for so long.” In fact, she says the rates of death caused by heart disease have dropped by almost two-thirds over the last 40 years, in part due to preventive care.

Taking full advantage of preventive services also helps establish a good rapport with your HCP.

“It’s just like auto insurance—if you wait until you have an accident, it’s going to be pretty hard to find insurance,” explains Long Gillespie. “It’s the same thing with a physician. Whether it’s time for a screening or you need to be treated for pneumonia, the best way to that is to have a physician with whom you have maintained a regular relationship.”

As a general guideline, Long Gillespie suggests that adults without chronic conditions visit their primary care physician annually for a check-up, though your HCP can offer a more specific evaluation based on your age, risk factors, and overall health. Too many people tend to take better care of their car or their pet than they do their own body, she says. “If you’re giving your pet their flea and heartworm medicine but not having your blood pressure checked, then you need to get in to see your doctor.”

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