**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. In addition, a different study in the same journal suggested that a sufficient number of primary care providers is linked to a longer life span and fewer premature deaths.
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 support better health.
Better knowledge over time
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. 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, they may decide that a mole you’re concerned about isn’t a problem since it has remained the same after a long time of tracking it.
Coordination of care
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. They have working relationships with the specialists they refer to and keep track of your care with them.
Getting care quickly
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 may have already determined a source of the issue and picked a specialist based on their own biased (and often under-informed) perspective. Visiting specialists takes time, which can delay your diagnosis, result in over-testing and unforeseen medical costs. However, when you see your primary care provider, you avoid looking at a problem too narrowly, and instead work toward a solution geared for your overall health and wellness.
Qualities to look for
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. Make sure he or she demonstrates an open mind, listens carefully and weighs different possibilities, which is what primary care providers are trained to do.
Types of primary care providers
There are different types of primary care providers people can choose depending on their needs.
- 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.
- Pediatricians specialize 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.
This article previously appeared online in the Bellevue Business Journal.