A primary care physician fills an important role in a person’s health, similar to the way a home room teacher in school serves as an anchor for students.
A primary care physician is a specialist in family medicine, internal medicine or pediatrics who is a patient’s first point of contact. Research has shown that people who live in states that have more primary care physicians have better health outcomes, including fewer deaths from cancer, heart disease, or stroke.
“Using a primary care physicians is associated with living longer,” said Melissa Franco, D.O ., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care  at Pinecrest. “It’s been shown that communities with more primary care physicians have fewer premature deaths.”
The benefits of having a primary care physician include:
- Continuity of care. When a doctor is a primary care physician, he or she is “responsible for providing a patient’s comprehensive care,” according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Routine check ups with the same doctor builds a relationship beneficial to the patient. Over time, the primary care physician develops a comprehensive snapshot of the patient’s health which helps diagnose illnesses more accurately. A primary care physician also collaborates with other doctors and healthcare professionals, to keep track of any specialty care a patient receives.
- Medication management. About 35 percent of American take at least one prescription drug. Of those who use prescription medication, they take four on average, according to research by Consumer Reports. Because different medications are often prescribed by different doctors, there’s always a chance of side effects when the drugs interact with each other. A primary care physician can serve as gatekeeper by keeping track of all medications a patient takes, noting any changes in dosages or frequency that could cause negative side effects. Many electronic medical record systems used in physician offices these days will automatically flag medication contraindications, prompting the doctor to review with the patient any side effects he or she may be having. The primary care physician can then recommend changes to the medications or consult with the prescribing doctors to better manage the patient’s medication regimen.
- Time savings. When a patient has an established relationship with a primary care doctor, issues that come up in between annual check ups can often be addressed quickly. “While it depends on the type of symptoms and how severe they are, there are a lot of times I can manage a patient’s condition over the phone,” Dr. Franco says. “The more familiar I am with a patient’s history, the more effective I can be in deciding the best course of treatment. The patient appreciates the time savings this can create.”
- Prevention. The more a doctor is aware of your overall health, the more likely they will be able to identify health problems before they happen. Having your overall health profile enables the primary care physician to recommend tests that can determine your risk of developing certain diseases, such as diabetes , heart disease and cancer. If you’re at high risk, your primary care doctor can recommend lifestyle changes you may need to make to help lower that risk and prevent becoming sick.
- Behavioral health. Comprehensive care under the scope of a primary care physician includes monitoring a patient’s behavioral health. The current recommendation is to screen adults and children age 12 for depression at primary care office visits. Each time a patient visits his or her primary care physician at Baptist Health, they will be asked if they are feeling depressed or anxious.
“One in four adults has depression and many are unaware they need medical treatment,” Dr. Franco says. “Asking patients about their mental health is part of the collaborative care model that primary care physicians use. We work with psychologists and psychiatrists to help patients get the care they need to address their behavioral health.”
Dr. Franco and the medical assistants at Baptist Health Primary Care use a questionnaire developed to help primary care practitioners to assess the level of a patient’s depression or anxiety. If the patient scores high for either, he or she may be referred to a social worker who will help him or her make an appointment with a behavioral health practitioner.
Psychologists, psychiatrists or other behavioral health professionals who see that patient will then have the opportunity to communicate with his or her primary care physician and assigned social worker throughout treatment. Treatment may include medication for depression, anxiety or another condition and often behavioral health counseling. The social worker assigned to the patient contacts him or her regularly to see how they’re feeling and help connect them with any other services  they may need.
“We’re picking up more patients who are experiencing depression or anxiety and connecting them with the professionals who can help them feel better,” Dr. Franco said. “A lot of people are surprised when we tell them they’re experiencing depression of anxiety. We want our patients to know that Baptist Health has a support system in place helping you along the way.”