The Importance of a Primary Care Physician

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — April 8, 2020 — 6 min read
How well do you know your doctor? Or maybe we should ask: How well does your doctor know you?

Patients who regularly (at least once a year) see the same doctor for all their health concerns and wellness checks may live longer. By developing a relationship with this professional known as a primary care physician (PCP), you increase your chances of detecting serious illnesses early.

We sat down with Dr. Pamela Wright-Etter, VP of Medical Services at Cardinal Innovations, to find out a little more about the importance of PCPs. Dr. Wright-Etter has been practicing psychiatric medicine for more than 30 years and is a Distinguished Lifetime Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association (DLFAPA). She discussed the ins and outs of the patient-PCP relationship, and answered questions like:
  • Who is a PCP?
  • What does a PCP do?
  • Why should I see a PCP?
  • Who might have trouble seeing a PCP?
  • How do I choose the right PCP for myself or my children?

Who is a Primary Care Physician?

“We should define what a primary care physician is,” Wright-Etter said. “Some people think only family doctors are considered PCPs, but that’s not the only case. For example, OBGYNs (obstetricians and gynecologists) can function as the primary care doctors for women.”

Other PCPs can include:
Family Doctors/General Practitioners (GPs)
  • These PCPs can treat all ages and often treat multiple individuals within the same family.
  • This type of physician is one that specializes in internal medicine and focuses on preventing, diagnosing and treating illnesses in adults.
  • These PCPs specialize in pediatrics, or children’s medicine, and can see patients aged 0 to 18. They’re the first doctor you’d call if your child is sick.
  • Individuals over the age of 55 might choose to see a geriatrician as their PCP to better cater to age-related illnesses.
Rural Doctors
  • While rural doctors usually serve in the same way as family doctors or GPs, they are often the only accessible doctor for multiple towns across a region. According to a 2019 survey conducted by NPR, roughly “one-quarter [of rural Americans] say they lack adequate health care access” because of the shortage of these types of doctors.

What Does a PCP Do?

A primary care physician is the first point of contact for most of your medical care. He or she would offer more holistic, individualized care because they know your medical history. You usually go to them for preventative visits like an annual checkup.

Wright-Etter said that when you have a PCP, “you don’t have to recite your medical history over and over. Your PCP will keep your information documented in their records. The more your doctor knows about your history, the better they are able to focus on individual problems.”

She went on to say that when a doctor has a deeper relationship with their patients, they can better focus on underlying causes of illness or pain. By contrast, emergency or urgent care doctors “may not investigate further than just giving you symptomatic relief,” she said. Basically, an urgent care doctor treats the immediate concerns or symptoms, while a PCP investigates and treats the underlying cause.

Why Seeing a PCP Regularly Could Save You Money—and Your Life

“PCPs are seeing you over time as you age,” Wright-Etter said. “They’re working with you on preventative measures. They’re asking if you’ve had your flu shot. Having that continuity in your care is important to fighting off chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. They’ll be looking for that every year in your annual exam.”

Because of the preventative nature of a PCP’s practice, they are better able to catch, and possibly prevent, serious illnesses early on. Not only do you lower your risk of dying from a treatable illness, but you also avoid spending thousands of dollars on medical expenses over a lifetime.

Furthermore, seeing a PCP doesn’t just save you money. One study estimated that the U.S. would save $67 billion per year if every citizen saw a PCP first.

How a PCP Improves Your Quality of Specialized Care

“As a doctor you are so in tune to changes when you really know somebody,” Wright-Etter said, describing her personal experience with long-term patients. “I can walk in a room and say, ‘There is something wrong with this person,’ and I could help them get connected to a specialist more quickly than if they arranged an appointment themselves.”

Food for Thought: What are the Barriers to Primary Medical Care?

“The number one barrier to care is no insurance,” Wright-Etter explained. “Or a patient’s insurance has such a high deductible that they can’t afford to go. It all comes down to finances.”

Even those who are on Medicaid with $3 copays may be choosing between buying groceries and seeking medical care. And, unfortunately, many medical practices don’t accept Medicaid as a form of insurance.

“You have to have a willingness on the side of providers to take Medicaid.”

Wright-Etter said that a common barrier to care for older patients is denial: “It’s hard to say to yourself, ‘I might need a doctor now. I might be more susceptible to chronic diseases.’ Instead many seniors tell themselves, ‘It’s not a real problem, and it’ll go away.’ And many of these patients don’t want to take their medicine.”

“A potential barrier is transportation,” Wright-Etter pointed out. “You might want to look at what’s closest to you or what’s on the bus line. Medicaid can provide transportation, but it’s not easy to get.”

Not to mention, many facing a medical emergency don’t have the option to call 9-1-1. In Mecklenburg County, an ambulance ride alone can cost nearly $1,000, possibly more.

Steps to Choose the Right PCP

1. Get recommendations from your friends and neighbors. Often the best doctors have plenty of happy patients who will put in a good word for them. Which pediatrician does your sister take her son to? Who does your neighbor go to for her annual OBGYN checkup? Word-of-mouth recommendations are a great sign.

2. Be wary of online reviews. Most patients willing to go online to review a doctor are ones who have bad things to say. While a doctor might not have been a great fit for one person, it doesn’t mean they won’t work for you.

3. Don’t be afraid to “shop around” for a PCP. It might take a few visits with different doctors to get it right.

4. Know the signs of a good (and bad) PCP. Here are Dr. Wright-Etter’s thoughts:
  • Do they spend time with you? “There really is no substitute for spending time with a patient to get to know them.”
  • Do they listen to you? “Listening to your patients is critical—primary care or specialist.”
  • Do you feel like you can trust them and that they trust you? “The doctor needs to trust the patient to follow their instructions, and the patient needs to trust that the doctor is looking out for their best interest.”

Primary Care Physicians Offer a Holistic Approach

Dr. Wright-Etter’s thoughts on PCPs boil down to this:
“I have a really good friend in Western N.C. who is in primary care. His patients love him because he knows the whole family, even the grandparents of the family. He knows all the family disorders. He knows all the family stressors. All those things make for a great holistic approach to patient care.”
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