Having a primary care physician is one of the best things you can do for your health.

Why it’s so important to have a trusted primary care doctor

by David Buice, Special Contributor | October 25, 2019

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of primary care physicians in our nation’s health care system. For many Americans, their primary care physician (PCP) is the medical professional they see for annual checkups and the first one they consult when health-related issues arise. This means that the primary care physician is often the earliest to see signs of emotional distress such as depression, as well as the initial signs of cancer or chronic conditions. 

Adults in the U.S. who have a primary health care provider have 19 percent lower odds of premature death than those who see only specialists. As if that weren’t enough, people who see a primary care provider save 33 percent in health care costs compared to those getting care from a specialist.

Despite these life- and money-saving costs, about 28 percent of U.S. men and 17 percent of women don’t have a personal doctor or health care provider, and the problem is worse among minorities. Among men, 31 percent of blacks, 47 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of Asians don’t have a personal physician. For women, 18 percent of blacks, 33 percent of Hispanic and 21 percent of Asian females do not have a primary care physician.

Perhaps most concerning of all, 93 percent of millennials — Americans born between 1981 and 1996 — don’t schedule preventive care appointments with doctors.

Types of primary care physicians 

Contrary to common perception, there are actually several types of primary care physicians.

  • Family Medicine: These are the physicians most often thought of as PCPs. They treat patients of all ages, from newborns to the elderly, as well as ailments you might think only a specialist could provide care for, such as sports injuries and some women’s health needs.
  • Internal Medicine: Sometimes referred to as an “adult medicine doctor,” these physicians typically treat adults and specialize in the prevention, diagnosis and management of disease and chronic conditions.
  • Pediatricians: These are the doctors who manage children’s health care and are trained to diagnose and treat childhood illnesses, from minor health problems to serious diseases.
  • Obstetricians/Gynecologists (OB/GYN): Gynecologists specialize in women’s reproductive health, while an obstetrician cares for women during pregnancy and often delivers babies.  

Providing a wide variety of medical services

Your primary care physician should be your first stop when you’re sick or in need of health care services, including your annual physical, immunizations, prescription refills, cold or flu symptoms, a sore throat, minor injuries, back pain or even suspected broken bones. Your primary care doctor promotes your overall well-being and makes sure you are up to date on your preventive health services such as mammograms or colorectal screenings.

Beyond these basic but essential medical services, you may be surprised to learn that your PCP can also address a variety of other health questions, including:

  • Gynecological health: For female patients, a family medicine physician can perform an annual physical and order labs, and they can also perform your pap smear and order mammograms as part of your physical when indicated. Family medicine physicians can also address routine gynecological health concerns such as abnormal periods, and they can prescribe birth control.
  • Chronic conditions: Family physicians can often manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and thyroid disorders.
  • Weight loss management: Primary care physicians can provide guidance on ways to make lifestyle changes through food choices and exercise, as well as prescribe medications to help with weight loss. If necessary, they can also offer referrals for surgical weight loss.
  • Mental health: Some mental health disorders can be treated initially at your family physician’s office. Family medicine physicians are trained to diagnose depression and anxiety disorders, and provide treatment with medications such as antidepressants.  
  • Skin problems: Your family physician can evaluate your skin concerns and determine if you need treatment by a dermatologist. Some family medicine physicians also have the training to perform a variety of in-office skin procedures, such as removing skin tags, freezing warts and performing some skin biopsies.

Millennials and primary care

The greatest gap in primary care services occurs among millennials born between 1981 and 1996. As mentioned above, 93 percent of these younger Americans don’t schedule regular preventive care appointments with a primary care physician, instead often relying on urgent care clinics for minor emergencies and after-hours care.

One problem with that approach is that more than half leave with an unnecessary prescription for an antibiotic, compared to only 17 percent seen at a physician’s office. Unfortunately, this practice of over-prescribing can put you at risk of serious side effects and contribute to the growing worldwide problem of bacteria resistance due to antibiotic overuse.

It’s essential for younger Americans to realize that while their health may be robust at this stage of life, it’s inevitable that all of us will have health issues sometime during our lifetime. And many of those problems can be mitigated, or possibly even avoided, if you establish a relationship with a trusted primary care physician whose goals are not only to treat your ailments, but also to educate and empower you to take the steps necessary to promote a long and healthy life.

Finding a primary care physician near you

If you need a primary care physician, you can get assistance in finding one here. You can also find practical advice to help you stay well on the Baylor Scott & White Health blog, Scrubbing In.

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