Since researchers began differentiating primary care from other aspects of the health services delivery system, there has been growing evidence supporting its positive impact on public health infrastructure. Studies show that primary care can help improve patient outcomes and prevent illness and untimely death.

The term “primary care” was coined in 1920 with the release of the Dawson Report in the UK. The official white paper mentioned “primary health care centers” as centers designed to be the cornerstone of regionalized services in the nation. While the UK and many other countries recognized primary care as the foundation of their health services system, not much effort was made to develop infrastructure to deliver primary care in the United States.

Concerned that with an increase in the number of specialists in the U.S., they won’t remain indispensable in the future, family physicians collaborated with international peers to set standards for accrediting the newly recognized “specialty” of family practice.

Even though the importance of primary care has been widely recognized since then, there have been recent calls by professionals to increase the number of specialist physicians in the United States even more despite the fact that the U.S. has fewer primary care physicians compared to many other industrialized nations.

How Does Primary Care Support the Healthcare System?

A study found that people in areas with more primary care physicians are usually healthier.  Research also suggests that regions with a higher ratio of primary care physicians to population spend less on healthcare than other areas. Primary care improves access to healthcare among marginalized communities. Its primary goal is to prevent health problems and manage existing conditions, so they do not snowball into major health concerns. Preventive care can help reduce hospitalization rates, thus taking some pressure off the already burdened healthcare system.

When it comes to treating common illnesses, primary care doctors perform on par with specialists, and they excel when general quality measures are applied. For rarer conditions, primary care doctors in Sonoma often consult specialists and request them to provide support at every stage of treatment.

Early diagnosis and treatment have been shown to improve health outcomes and is linked to low healthcare costs. When it comes to treating cancer, time is of the essence. Some studies show that in states with a higher ratio of PCPs to population, different types of cancer such as breast, colon, cervical, and melanoma may be diagnosed at an early stage. A study reported that every tenth-percentile increase in the number of primary care doctors led to a statistically significant 4 percent higher chance of an early diagnosis.

Another research comparing primary care physicians and specialists treating patients with hypertension, non-insulin-dependent diabetes, recent myocardial infarction, or depression revealed that the only preventive care tasks specialists performed more effectively were examining foot ulcers and assessing infection status in diabetic patients.

The study also found that primary care doctors focused more on preventive care and adopted more effective approaches (which led to better patient outcomes) than specialists. It was noted that primary care physicians perform several tests including pap smears, breast exams, and blood pressure tests during patient visits to diagnose potential health issues. They can also order imaging tests such as CT scans and X-rays as well as screening tests including mammograms and urinalysis if they suspect a health problem.

A 1992 study examined the relationship between access to primary care and hospitalization due to problems that could be prevented with quality primary care. In the study, men with hypertension admitted to a hospital in a large metropolitan area were divided into two groups-one group consisted of participants who were admitted due to a preventable complication. The other group comprised individuals who were admitted due to an unrelated condition (to hypertension). Researchers concluded that those admitted due to a preventable complication were four times less likely to have a primary care doctor.

The study suggests that men with hypertension who have a primary care provider are less likely to need hospitalization due to preventable complications than those who don’t have a primary care physician.

In communities where primary care physicians have a greater role in treating children both prior to and during their hospital stays, hospitalization rates among children are lower. Also, adolescents who see a primary care doctor regularly are less likely to require a trip to the ER.

Treatment costs can significantly increase if treatment is delayed. Mental illness can go undetected for a long time. A primary care physician sees their patients regularly. They know their family and health history and can immediately recognize changes in behavior patterns or erratic/inconsistent behavior and other signs of mental illness. If a PCP has reasons to believe that a patient has higher-than average risk of developing a mental illness or is already struggling with mental illness, they can recommend them to a good psychiatrist, who can start treatment right away to nip the problem in the bud.

Note that short-term patient-doctor relationships are associated with poor health outcomes. PCPs usually need at least two years to form a bond with their patient, win their trust, and develop an in-depth understanding of their healthcare needs so they can deliver patient-focused care. So, once you start seeing a PCP, do not miss your appointments.

Dr. Guy is a well-respected primary care doctor in Sonoma. His ability to understand his patients’ unique healthcare needs and deliver patient-centered care sets him apart from other PCPs in Sonoma. To book an appointment with him, call 707-938-1255.