As we age, most of us develop health issues. Along the way we may visit a specialist to handle each of these issues: for example, a cardiologist to treat hypertension and a gastroenterologist to treat acid reflux. However, it has become increasingly clear that in today’s era of specialization, you need a primary care doctor more than ever to coordinate your care, give you treatment appropriate for your age and gender, and prevent future health problems for the fullest quality of life.
You may be surprised at how much of your treatment a primary care doctor can provide. Primary care doctors know your whole story, while specialists may not be in communication with each other or understand the range of your health care needs. Medicine has become increasingly specialized, and specialists can provide much needed targeted treatments for specific ailments or organ dysfunctions. But fragmented, uncoordinated care is the handmaiden of specialization.
What is a primary care doctor?
This term is generally restricted to internists (who have completed a 3 year residency in internal medicine, and treat adults) and family physicians (who have completed a 3 year residency and treat patients of all ages). Geriatricians are internists or family physicians with additional training in caring for the elderly, often in primary care. Within the healthcare system, these types of physicians are often called “PMDs”, for primary medical doctor or “PCP” for primary care provider.
The word ‘primary’ care may imply simple or elementary medicine, but primary care is a highly complex practice. PMDs are prepared to diagnose and treat all common diseases, and many, if not most, of the less common ones too. Additionally, they are uniquely qualified to provide comprehensive and holistic care to patients with multiple simultaneous diseases. PMDs also try to prevent future health problems-– they don’t just treat what you have. PMDs keep up to date on the frequently changing recommendations on preventive medicine (e.g., vaccines, mammograms, colonoscopies). In all of their functions, PMDs strive to give care tailored specifically to each patient.
Why do you need a primary care doctor?
Above all, primary care is good for your health and will help you live longer. Multiple studies have demonstrated this. Here are six important reasons you need a primary care doctor now more than ever:
- A PMD can coordinate and oversee your care. The more complex and varied your health conditions are, the more important a PMD becomes. A PMD will give you guidance on how to integrate varied, complex, and sometimes contradictory recommendations that you may receive from multiple specialists.
- A PMD can save you from unnecessary or harmful treatments by taking the time to understand you as a person and know your history. The PMD has a 30,000-foot view of all your health problems. The PMD considers your age, gender and other factors to ask “is this really the right treatment for you?”
- A PMD can ensure that your medications are not hurting you. Some medications can be dangerous in older patients. A PMD might replace or stop medications that may do you more harm than good and detect drug interactions. It has been estimated that 265,000 adults (age 65 and older) each year go to the emergency room or are hospitalized because of an adverse drug effect. A PMD also can almost always shorten your medication list if it is too long for you; so, the PMD can end up saving you money.
- A PMD can offer a second opinion on whether a treatment recommended by another doctor is likely to be beneficial. For example, many treatments have been proven effective only in patients under 65 years old, and older patients may not derive the same benefit from them.
- A PMD works to prevent possible problems by offering vaccinations, screening tests and discussing lifestyle changes like weight loss, exercise and quitting smoking.
- A PMD can help you realize you’re developing health problems you hadn’t noticed yet. Problems with vision, strength and fall risk, urinary incontinence, depression or anxiety, and memory can sneak up on you over time without detection—even by doctors who don’t ask. These are things that you may not report, but PMDs are trained to look for.