Reasons to Have a Primary Care Physician

Having a primary care physician is linked with better health, and yet 1 in 4 Americans don’t have one. If that’s you, here are the reasons to find yours now.

Mother and baby in doctors office waiting room

Between the ever-growing number of urgent care centers and options for virtual care, having a primary care physician (PCP) may seem almost old-fashioned. The truth is, having a PCP has been shown to keep you healthier as you age. Even if you’re young and feel well, says Scott Kaiser, MD, a PCP is key to ensuring you get the health care you need. Dr. Kaiser is a family physician in Santa Monica, California.

And yet the number of Americans who have a PCP is steadily trending down. That’s especially true among people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. For instance, 71% of Americans in their 30s had a primary care physician in 2002, while only 64% did in 2015, a recent study found. If you’re one of the growing number of people who don’t have a PCP, here are 7 motivating reasons to find yours now.

1. You’re more likely to stay up to date on your medical care.

A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people with a primary care provider are more likely to:

  • Fill their necessary prescriptions.
  • Have an annual physical.
  • Get screenings for common conditions such as colon cancer and breast cancer.

The reasons for this are varied. Follow-up calls and reminders from a PCP can lead to more prescriptions filled, for instance. And PCPs are more likely to suggest annual health screenings than specialists, who largely don’t address issues outside their areas of expertise.

2. A PCP can help you manage chronic health conditions.

Conditions like type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure are hard to stay ahead of on your own. Chronic illnesses like these can require that you also visit specialists. For example, if you have a heart condition you’ll need to see a cardiologist. For diabetes, you’ll work with an endocrinologist.

Your primary care physician can refer you to a specialist, for starters. But also, because your PCP knows you and your medical history so well, they can refer you to the specialist who best meets your specific needs and personality.     

“Your primary care provider is like the quarterback,” says Dr. Kaiser. “He talks to all of your doctors and comes up with a game plan.” Dr. Kaiser is the director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.

3. A PCP can keep track of all your medications.

Almost 70% of all Americans take at least 1 prescription drug, and 20% take 5 or more. These different medications are often prescribed by different doctors. That means there’s always a chance of side effects when the drugs interact with one another, says Michael Hochman, MD. Dr. Hochman is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC.

But if you have a primary care doctor, they can help serve as a medication gatekeeper along with your pharmacist. PCPs keep track of all your medications. They keep an eye on you for any potential side effects. And your PCP can talk to your specialists, if necessary, about tweaking doses, changing brands, or discontinuing a drug entirely.

4. You’ll be happier with your health care.

People with a primary care physician report being more satisfied with the health care they get compared to those without one, according to findings in the medical journal JAMA. They also felt like they had a better rapport with their doctor. It makes sense: “If you have a physician that you trust, you’ll have a good relationship with them and you’ll get better care as a result,” says Dr. Kaiser. The more comfortable you are, the more likely it is that you’ll share honest information about your health — even if it’s upsetting or embarrassing. And that helps your doctor make treatment decisions and offer resources that are truly helpful.

5. You’ll save money.

U.S. adults who have a primary care physician spend about a third less on health care costs than adults who don’t. That might not make sense at first. It seems like you’d be spending more on doctor visits, right? But in fact, if you have regular checkups with your PCP, they can help you manage health conditions that might otherwise spiral. And that can stop you from needing more expensive tests and visits, or even hospitalization, says Dr. Hochman. It also makes it less likely that you’ll end up at an urgent care clinic or ER for common ailments such as a sore throat or cough, which could cost you much more.

6. You’ll catch health issues earlier.

Your PCP can provide one-stop preventive care. Through screenings for conditions such as diabetes and cancer, they can help you catch illnesses early, and even avoid health issues down the road. In parts of the country with a high ratio of PCPs — generally urban areas versus large or small rural areas — death rates for cancer, heart disease, and stroke are lower, and people are less likely to be hospitalized overall.

A good primary care doctor also asks all the right questions during visits, which can help them flag a potential problem, adds Dr. Kaiser. They can also respond to messages and emails through patient portals and digital health management apps like Wellframe.

7. A PCP can offer more holistic care.

Your primary care provider is all about taking care of you as a whole person, says Dr. Kaiser. They are looking at the big picture of your health. It’s not just your physical health, but your mental and emotional health as well. If you’re depressed, for example, that can make conditions like chronic pain worse, though experts don’t yet understand the link.

Your PCP is also more likely to be up to date on your health history and your family health history than a specialist or urgent care doctor. This background is important for both preventing disease and catching early symptoms of other medical conditions, points out Dr. Kaiser. And earlier treatment often leads to healthier outcomes.

If all those compelling reasons to have a primary care physician convinced you it’s time you got one, great! The next step: finding a PCP that’s right for you. If you have a digital health management app through your health plan, it can connect you with a care advocate for help. They can search for a provider who is more likely to be in-network and a good fit for your personal needs. The care advocate can also make sure the provider is accepting new patients. That could save you a lot of time and stress. Don’t have a health management app? Check out your health plan’s website for an in-network directory or call your member services team.

Contact your health plan to see if you’re eligible for Wellframe.

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