You may think of a primary care physician (PCP) as the person you see for your annual physical and not much more. But primary care doctors also play a crucial role in managing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and back pain, as well as acute problems, such as urinary tract infections and minor injuries.
Still, the last several years have seen a notable decline in the number of people relying on primary care. Instead, they are turning directly to specialists or other health care options, such as retail medical clinics or commercial telehealth services. But if you have a chronic condition, and especially if you’re coping with multiple health concerns, you may be best served by having a PCP to manage it all.
Research suggests that compared to people who don’t have primary care, people who utilize primary care tend to fill their prescriptions more reliably and have regular preventive care checkups, while also reporting greater health care service and a better overall health care experience.
Coordinating Your Care
The National Council on Aging reports that 80% of adults ages 65 and older have at least one chronic health condition and 68% of older adults have two or more chronic conditions. And these conditions can include a wide variety of health concerns, from heart disease and respiratory problems to depression and dementia. Older adults have to be particularly mindful of other issues, too, such as skin cancer, arthritis and bone health, frailty, and other age-related challenges.
Having a cardiologist, dermatologist, neurologist, and other specialists on your health care team is important and means you’re being proactive about your health. And even though they may take note of your overall health or other conditions, they are focused primarily on their specialty. They prescribe medications and make other treatment and lifestyle recommendations based on what is best for managing a particular condition.
This is where having a PCP can be especially helpful. PCPs are trained to manage multiple conditions, always with a person’s overall health in mind. Your PCP can communicate directly with your specialists, asking important questions that the average person may not think to ask or sharing information that may be relevant to how those specialists care for you. A primary care doctor can advise family members and caregivers about how best to keep you healthy and what to watch for as signs of medical emergencies or disease progress.
A PCP can also review all of the prescribed medications from your various other doctors to look for any potential bad drug interactions or to see where there may be overlap and the possibility of getting rid of a particular medication.
Seeing the Big Picture
Your primary care doctor may know you better than any of your other specialists. As such, your PCP may be more likely to recognize small changes in your health, such as a slower walk, balance trouble, a slight tremor, or indications of depression or cognitive decline. Identifying concerning changes may prompt a referral to a specialist or at least trigger a test or screening to learn more about your changing health status.
If you need to be admitted to the hospital or to a rehabilitation facility or even a longer-term situation, such as a skilled nursing facility, your PCP can help you navigate your way through the health care system and be your advocate all the way along. Your PCP can continue to be your doctor even as your circumstances change.
If you have a medical question and you’re unsure whom to ask, you can always contact your PCP or someone in that doctor’s office for the information. Consider your PCP not just the quarterback of your health care team, but an information resource and medical advisor. The general, overall health focus of primary care means any questions or concerns can be directed to your PCP.
Primary care doctors and their medical staff understand their roles and prioritize, not just caring for diagnosed illnesses or other current health problems, but health education and awareness. They can sometimes offer second opinions or advice about how to better work with your specialists, home health aides, caregivers, or others who provide health services.
For many people who live in rural areas or other communities without extensive health care resources, primary care doctors often have to serve as emergency care physicians and take on responsibilities that might otherwise be handled by specialists. Relying on PCPs to manage chronic conditions is especially important for older adults in these areas.
Despite the drop in primary care visits in recent years, the role of PCPs is only becoming more vital and demanding. As people live longer, that also means they’re living with more chronic health conditions longer, too. Having a trained PCP with you to manage all your preventive care, health maintenance, and various treatments could mean a longer, healthier life, too.
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American Academy of Family Physicians: “Primary Care.”
Delaware Journal of Public Health: “The Role of Primary Care Physicians in Managing Chronic Disease.”
JAMA Internal Medicine: “Quality and Experience of Outpatient Care in the United States for Adults With or Without Primary Care.”
Journal of General Internal Medicine: “Evidence and Implications Behind a National Decline in Primary Care Visits.”
Missouri Medicine: “Addressing Rural Health Challenges Head On.”
National Council on Aging: “The Top 10 Most Common Chronic Conditions in Older Adults.”
PLoS One: “Associations between continuity of primary and specialty physician care and use of hospital-based care among community-dwelling older adults with complex care needs.”