Primary Care: Our First Line of Defense

Imagine if the only place you could bring your child when she develops a fever or an ear infection, or needs a checkup or a refill for her asthma inhaler, was to a hospital emergency room. Or imagine you have multiple medical problems—diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, say—yet don’t have a regular doctor you can trust will make sure you’re getting all the right care you need to keep them under control.

In other words, imagine how difficult it would be to get all the care you and your family need to stay healthy without a primary care provider.

Whether a family physician, an internist, a pediatrician, or a nurse practitioner, primary care providers are often the first contact we have with the health care system. Practicing in private offices, community health centers, and hospitals, they diagnose and treat common illnesses and spot minor health problems before they become serious ones. They offer preventive services such as flu shots, cancer screening, and counseling on diet and smoking, and play an important role in helping to manage the care of patients with chronic health conditions.

When people don’t have access to a regular primary care provider, they end up in emergency rooms more often, and they’re admitted to hospitals more frequently. Without regular screening, a controllable condition like high cholesterol—which often can be kept in check with common drugs—can eventually lead to a life-threatening heart attack.

The evidence shows that good access to primary care can help us live longer, feel better, and avoid disability and long absences from work. In areas of the country where there are more primary care providers per person, death rates for cancer, heart disease, and stroke are lower and people are less likely to be hospitalized. Another big plus: health care costs are lower when people have a primary care provider overseeing their care and coordinating all the tests, procedures, and follow-up care.

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