By Sara May, MD
It is common for people – especially young, working adults who are seemingly healthy – to ask themselves at some point whether they need a primary care provider. The answer is yes, you do, because having one will help keep you healthier throughout your life.
Numerous studies in medical journals have confirmed this, including one in International Journal of Health Services, which showed that states with more primary care providers per capita have better health outcomes, including fewer deaths from heart disease, stroke or cancer.
Primary care providers can significantly impact your health by delivering “continuity of care.” This means you establish a professional relationship with a health care provider, which improves year after year. This provider gets to know you, your health history and health goals, and also helps manage your overall progress. Continuity provides real benefits that have been shown to amount to better health. Examples of continuity include:
In the short term, continuity of care greatly increases the chances that you will receive a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Primary care providers acquire important information by following a health issue over time and can make treatment decisions as a result. Over time, a provider who knows your personality, tendencies and health history is in a better position to identify signs that might indicate a potential health change. For example, a primary care provider would know that a mole you’re concerned about isn’t a problem since it has remained the same since they began keeping an eye on it years ago.
If you need to see a specialist, a primary care provider will refer you to someone they know, respect and collaborate with. If you are worried about getting different suggestions from different specialists, your primary care provider can help you decide which recommendation to act on first. Your primary care provider has working relationships with the specialists they refer to and keeps track of your care with them.
Establishing a professional relationship with a primary care provider can help you receive care more quickly. Since that person knows more about you and your medical history, they can often help you over the phone or via secure email.
If you see your primary care provider for annual physicals rather than only seeing them when you’re sick, they can educate you about your health and help avoid chronic illnesses in the future. Yearly physicals are a time when your primary care provider can give you information about your unique health needs and goals. Subjects could include high blood pressure, weight loss, STD prevention, alcohol and tobacco use, or stress management and anxiety.
The problem with self-referrals
When people refer themselves to a specialist without first seeing their primary care provider, they have already self-identified a source of the issue and picked a specialist based on that biased, and often under-informed, perspective. Visiting specialists takes time, which can delay your diagnosis, result in over-testing and risks and be accompanied by unforeseen medical costs that can sometimes be avoided. However, when you see your primary care provider, you avoid a narrow approach to your issue – along with unnecessary tests that sometimes accompany that route – since their goal is to care for your overall health and wellness.
Everyone should have a primary care provider who can take a broad look at their health, especially when a diagnosis is needed. Primary care physicians are trained to keep an open mind, listen carefully and weigh all possibilities.
When seeking a primary care provider, people should look for feeling a sense of safety, rapport, trust, thoroughness and a broad depth of knowledge. Experts also recommend finding a provider who values and asks for your opinion and input.
Types of primary care providers
There are several types of primary care providers people can choose to establish a professional relationship with depending on the type of care needed. The most common primary care providers include:
· Family medicine or family practice providers care for the general medical, psychological and developmental needs of people and any family members.
· Internal medicine providers focus on adult medicine and have had special training on the prevention and treatment of adult diseases.
· Pediatriciansspecialize in child and adolescent health care from birth until age 21.
Whether or not you currently have a primary care provider, I wish you the best of health now and in the years ahead.
Sara May, MD, is board certified in Internal Medicine. She specializes in Primary Care and Travel Health and practices at Virginia Mason Issaquah Medical Center (100 N.E. Gilman Blvd., Issaquah, WA 98027; 425-557-8000), which is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For more information about primary care, visit these websites:
· American Academy of Family Physicians (aafp.org)
· American College of Physicians (acponline.org)
· U.S. National Library of Medicine (nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001939.htm)
· Washington State Medical Association (wsma.org)
· Virginia Mason (virginiamason.org/primarycare)