As many Coloradoans make health a focus amid COVID-19, one potentially overlooked priority is establishing a relationship — or re-engaging — with a primary care physician. Whether you have employer coverage or benefits through Medicare or Medicaid, a primary care physician can be a key resource to help you maintain or improve your well-being, including to help prevent illness and detect diseases as early as possible.
While the number of primary care physicians in Colorado is trending upwards, the state ranks 24th in the country at 256 providers per 100,000 residents, according to a report from America’s Health Rankings. Unfortunately, the number of Americans overall who have a relationship with a primary care physician is on the decline, with an estimated 25% of people lacking this type of ongoing relationship with a care professional. Reversing that trend is important, as research shows strengthening primary care may contribute to improved access to health-care services, better health outcomes, and a decrease in hospitalizations and emergency department visits.
If you think you’re healthy enough that you don’t need a primary care physician — or maybe you’ve been rationalizing that you are too busy to establish a relationship with one — consider the following:
Recognize the value of primary care
Primary care physicians can be a convenient and more affordable way for people to address their day-to-day health-care needs, such as annual checkups, preventive screenings, routine care and chronic condition management if needed. Typically, primary care physicians serve as a first contact for people as they navigate the health system — helping to identify risk factors for disease, more effectively manage chronic conditions and coordinate with specialists. All of this may add up to improved well-being and quality of life. In fact, people with a relationship with a primary care physician may be more likely to receive high-value care services, such as preventive screenings, and report better care access and experiences with the health-care system as compared to people without this type of care professional. The result is a 33% reduction in annual health-care costs for people with access to a primary care physician.
Find the right doctor and care setting for you
Finding the right physician and care setting may be a challenge for many people, in part because some individuals may not be aware of their options or how to compare the quality and cost of health-care professionals. There is often wide variation in the quality and cost of health care services, even though there is often little or no corresponding improvement in health outcomes for services performed by higher-priced care professionals. To help find the right health-care professional, people can compare publicly available, online patient-posted reviews to help research primary care professionals in their local areas. For a more detailed analysis, some health plans offer online search capabilities that identify quality care professionals, as determined by national standardized measures for performance and local geographic area benchmarks for cost-efficiency. More broadly, some health plans and hospitals make cost estimate information available online, including actual contracted rates for hundreds of “shoppable” medical services.
When it comes to evaluating the right setting for care, a doctor’s office is not the only way to access in-person care. For instance, people enrolled in some Medicare Advantage plans may have access to programs that provide annual health and wellness visits from the convenience and privacy their homes.
Smartphones and computers are making it possible to access various types of care virtually, including with local physicians who are increasingly embracing this technology to “see” patients. This is especially important amid COVID-19, as many people continue to practice social distancing. There’s been a more than 10-fold increase in the use of virtual care since the emergence of COVID-19, including for urgent, preventive and chronic condition management. Other studies have shown that some people who see a doctor virtually report no difference in the quality of the visit, compared to an in-person appointment, and that some patients vastly preferred a virtual experience, due to the convenience and the elimination of travel time.
More broadly, a growing number of Americans are relying on virtual care for urgent care needs and remote patient monitoring programs to help manage more serious illnesses or chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes. People can check with their health plan or local care professional to determine what types of virtual resources may be available to them.
To help make health a priority in 2021, don’t underestimate the potential impact of developing a relationship with a primary care physician as part of a holistic approach to maintaining and improving your well-being.
Dr. Donna O’Shea is the chief medical officer of population health management for UnitedHealthcare
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