From well-baby visits to treatment for ear infections, coughs and colds, most American children experience frequent trips to a pediatrician’s office or health clinic. Their parents know who to call when a health concern arises.
In contrast, many adults don’t have a primary care medical provider and don’t get annual check-ups. When they get sick or injured, their only option is the hospital emergency room or an urgent care clinic. Because these adults lack ongoing coordinated care, their long-term health often suffers.
The solution is simple: every adult should choose a primary care provider to ensure they receive consistent, preventive health care. The time to do this is before illness strikes so there is time to get that first well-patient exam scheduled. Even if a patient’s insurance plan has a high deductible, basic annual exams are covered at no charge under the Affordable Care Act.
Benefits of primary care
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A primary care provider can be a physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant. Often, they all work together to provide care at the same location, depending on the reason for your visit.
Patients who maintain a relationship with a primary care provider benefit from:
Promotion of wellness: While the goal of a hospital or specialist is to diagnose and treat medical conditions, a primary care provider focuses on keeping the patient in good health, with tools including screenings, immunizations and advice on nutrition and exercise.
Lower overall costs: Most insurance companies charge a lower out-of-pocket fee for visits to primary care physicians than for trips to the ER. Also, because primary care providers know which tests a patient has had recently, expensive duplication of tests can be avoided.
Better management of chronic diseases: An ongoing relationship with one health care provider, with regularly scheduled tests such as MRIs, often results in fewer complications due to conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Early treatment of health concerns: A medical professional who sees a patient at least once a year may notice signs of a problem, such as skin cancer or heart disease, before it advances to a more serious stage.
Familiarity with patient history: A primary care provider already knows, for example, that a patient is allergic to penicillin, even if the patient forgets to mention it during an exam. A provider with an ongoing patient relationship may also know when loss of a job impacts the ability to pay for a name-brand medication or when a patient is missing sleep due to a child’s ongoing illness.
Coordination of care: The health care system can be confusing, with one patient seeing multiple providers while trying to follow insurer rules for reimbursement. A primary care provider helps to develop a plan so that all of a patient’s concerns are addressed without duplicating care.
Preparing for the future
In some parts of the U.S., finding a primary care provider can be difficult. According to a 2015 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the nation will face a shortfall of at least 12,500 primary care physicians by 2025.
In response to this shortage of family medicine providers, Penn State Health and Mount Nittany Medical Center have partnered to form a residency program in family and community medicine at Mount Nittany to help meet the need for doctors. In 2017, the program will include 18 full-time residents.
Together with nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant training programs, the Family and Community Medicine Residency strives to be part of the solution so that everyone can benefit from patient-centered primary care.
Barbara H. Cole is a nurse practitioner with Penn State Medical Group in State College.