Anyone trying to navigate their health and the health care system without a primary care physician in their corner is working at a serious disadvantage, and I’m not just saying that because I am one.
A study of more than 60,000 patients published by JAMA Internal Medicine in January 2019 found those who went to a primary care physician or provider (PCP) were 3.4 % more likely to fill more prescriptions and 14.7% more likely to have had at least one regular, preventive care-focused medical appointment per year.
Those with primary care physicians were 10.8% more likely to have received “high-value” cancer screenings. For those with diabetes, patients getting primary care received an average of 7.8% more high-value care than those who did not.
Another study, published around the same time in the same journal, reported every 10 additional primary care physicians per 100,000 people in the United States was associated with a 51.5-day increase in life expectancy from 2005 to 2015, while a similar increase in specialists led to only a 19.2-day increase.
The benefits are well-known, but unfortunately we have a shortage of PCPs that’s only going to get worse. Still, it’s worth seeking one out for everyone in your family, for many reasons.
These physicians are generalists who treat minor infections and illnesses and are experienced at managing multiple conditions and continuing care for diabetes and other diseases. They know how and when to get feedback from specialists and are in a position to get to know the whole patient, including their lifestyle and personal goals.
Some patients believe going to a specialist for their particular conditions is what’s necessary and a primary care physician is superfluous. But along with the better health outcomes, primary care has been shown to reduce patient costs by 33 percent overall, and by more than 300 percent over seeking the same treatment in an emergency room setting. This is why many insurance plans have patients get a referral to a specialist from their primary care physician.
These plans may require you to choose a primary care physician, but it’s a good idea whatever your health situation is. Even if you currently don’t have any conditions or medications that need to be managed, you should have one to turn to for annual checkups and treatment for cold, flus and other infections you run across in the course of life.
So how do you choose a primary care provider? Here are some tips.
- Decide what you want and need in a provider — Do you want an MD, or would you be comfortable with another professional with training to treat primary care patients under the supervision of a doctor, such as a physician assistant or nurse practitioner? Do you have a preference for talking to a man or woman about your health?
Would you like to have a PCP with a particular focus? Most family practice or internal medicine specialists are generalists who treat people from a wide age range, but other choices include a pediatrician for children and a geriatrician for seniors.
- Networking — Most coverage plans have some form of a provider network, where patients receive less or sometimes no coverage if they go to someone outside of it. If you’re not familiar with any providers in your area who are in-network, consider doing your own kind of networking and see if any of your friends or associates can recommend someone who is.
- Make a list — Once you’ve gathered a few names, write them down with all the information you’ve been able to gather, including their location and anything you’ve been able to get from Arizona Medical Board records (www.azmd.gov). Go over what you’ve found and see if there are any you would rule out, based on what you know.
- Set up an informational meeting with your top one or two choices, if possible.