Access to a Primary Care Doctor Provides Increased Life Expectancy

Access to a Primary Care Doctor Provides Increased Life Expectancy

August 19, 2022

Do you have a primary care doctor? You should. Having a primary care physician can improve your long-term health outcomes. A recent study found that people who have relationships with a primary care doctor have a longer life expectancy. At Treasure Valley Family Medicine, we provide a full range of medical services in Meridian and throughout the entire region, including direct primary care for those folks without traditional health insurance. In this article, we will explore what primary care is, why it is so important, and the tangible benefits of developing a personal relationship with a top primary care physician.

What is Primary Care?

As defined by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), primary care physicians specialize in comprehensive, first contact, and continuing care for persons with any undiagnosed sign, symptom, or health concern (the “undifferentiated” patient); we are not limited by problem origin (biological, behavioral, or social), organ system, or diagnosis. It is distinct from sub-specialty care. Whereas medical specialists help people dealing with specific ailments confined to a single body part or organ system (their title ends in -ologist), a primary care doctor provides whole-person care that every person needs. Since many issues people face may cross over into multiple organ systems at the same time, only doctors that can knowledgeably consider ALL OF YOU provide the long-term treatment you need. When other doctors are needed, primary care doctors also coordinate care to ensure that subspecialists are not operating in silos, creating gaps in care or worse – direct conflicts in care. Primary care is not found in urgent care clinics or emergency departments. Almost never will you see a provider in urgent care or the ER that knows you or has seen you previously. Whereas primary care doctors embrace our role as detectives to uncover difficult diagnoses and teach patients, the mission in the ER is to stabilize and move you along to elsewhere, not to confirm a diagnosis. As soon as a person is confirmed stable (not facing imminent loss of life or limb), then disposition is rapidly made for admission to the hospital or discharge home. Spending the time and energy to find a specific diagnosis or cause for your concern is simply not the priority in the ER, where an ER doctor may see 60 or more brand-new patients in a single shift. We clearly need emergency departments, but any honest ER doctor would tell you that most of their cases do not need emergent level (and very expensive) care.

Why is Primary Care So Important?

Primary care is important because it saves lives. Multiple publications and research studies are clear: patients who establish ongoing relationships with primary care physicians have better long-term health outcomes. In fact, people with primary care doctors have an increased life expectancy. The latest data comes from a peer-reviewed study published in JAMA Internal Medicine;  researchers found a causal association between the presence of primary care providers and life expectancy. The core finding:

  • 10 additional primary care physicians per 100 000 population was associated with a 51.5-day increase in life expectancy. The average mortality reduction was 5.3% in a similar study.
  • In contrast, an increase in 10 specialist physicians per 100 000 population only corresponded to a 19.2-day increase – a statistically and clinically significant lesser difference.

Some patients without a primary care doctor will use their specialty doctor instead, but quality of care is inferior. A comparative study on this topic showed those with a primary care doctor as their personal physician had 33% lower annual adjusted health care expenditures and lower adjusted mortality (hazard ratio = 0.81; 95% CI, 0.66-0.98). Cost savings are also seen with higher levels of primary care.

For decades, population-based research has continued to highlight the value of primary care. A classic evidence review from The MilBank Quarterly cites dozens of articles outlining population health improvements gained from primary care.

Compared to other first world nations across the globe, the United States continues to perform poorly on major health indicators, despite per capita health care expenditures that are much higher than those of any other country. What do these countries have that the USA does not? They have high levels of primary care access.

What are the Tangible Benefits of Primary Care?

Primary care is important at both a system-wide level and an individual level. When people develop strong relationships with reliable primary care physicians, it reduces total system health care costs, improves population outcomes, and fosters equity across income groups. For individuals, there are tangible advantages to working with a primary care physician. Notable benefits of primary care include:

  • Continuity of Care: A ongoing patient relationship with a primary care physician means that you have a doctor who knows you and can provide health care services over time—assessing any new developments in your condition. Knowledge of your past care prevents duplication or repeating past failed efforts. Having the context of a relationship allows for efficient and accurate care.  
  • Save Time and Hassle: Lack of access to a primary care doctor can take up a lot of your time and energy. Instead of reaching out to ask your physician, those without primary care are forced to see urgent care or the ER where long-term concerns are explicitly deferred.  While some rely on Dr. Google to solve their questions, your primary care doctor can filter the ocean of nonsense on the web for you. A solid relationship with a top primary care doctor saves time and hassles.
  • Improved Communication with Medical Professionals: Although primary care doctors are experts at all things common, at times we must refer for certain procedures or uncommon conditions. At such times, we work hard to ensure we consult people we trust to care for our patients. Trying to navigate what specialty, which doctor, and when to see another doctor is part of our role in primary care.  When primary care doctors function as a quarterback directing a care team for you, good things happen.   
  • Early Detection (Preventive Care): Early detection of health problems can save lives. You and your family need the right preventive care. Primary care doctors in Idaho provide preventive care services. In the long run, preventive care can make a huge difference, for example colon cancer screening in everyone 45 years of age and up will save lives; one study showed screening colonoscopy use was associated with a 65% reduction in risk of death in the right colon and a 75% reduction in risk of death for left-colon/rectal cancers.

We Provide Top Quality Primary Care in Meridian, Boise, and the Treasure Valley

At Treasure Valley Family Medicine, our Idaho primary care physicians are devoted to providing top-quality, fully personalized primary care. If you are looking for a primary care doctor in the Treasure Valley, we are here to help. Give us a call now or connect with us directly online to find out more about the services offered by our primary care physicians. From our location in Meridian, we provide Meridian primary care, Boise primary care, and primary care for Nampa and Eagle, Idaho.