Primary care is the first point of contact with health services and provides a point of entry for the entire health system. Research has shown that access to primary health services is linked to better health outcomes, including improvements in self-rated health and a reduction in all-cause mortality.
Increased Access to Health Services
Primary care helps to increase access to health services, which is particularly important for isolated or deprived population groups that may not have the means to access these services otherwise.
As the main port of entry into the healthcare system, primary care providers are available to help individuals to understand and discuss their health and any particular problems that they may be experiencing. In case of need, a referral can be made for more specialized care.
Improved Quality of Care
There has been significant research comparing the quality of specialty and general practices.
Studies carried out by specialists have found that specialists tend to adhere more closely to disease-specific guidelines for health issues, correlating to improved preventative procedures and prescription decisions. However, other studies have failed to support this evidence and some areas of practice, such as for diabetes, have found the care by a general practitioner is equal to or better than that of a hospital-based specialist.
This research has led to the suggestion that primary care may often be superior in overall quality, due to the all-encompassing approach to health.
Focus on Prevention
Primary care places a strong emphasis on preventative interventions. These are particularly generic changes that have an impact on many aspects of health, such as breastfeeding, stopping smoking, staying physically active and eating a healthy diet. In the United States, regions with a higher ratio of primary care physicians to population correlated with reduced rates of smoking and obesity.
Early Management of Health Conditions
Primary care practitioners are also in a position to recommend screening measures to detect early changes that could be indicative of specific diseases. This may include checking blood pressure, blood tests, breast examinations, mammograms, Pap smears and bowel cancer screening.
Some research has found that patients admitted to hospitals with complications related to a manageable health condition, such as hypertension, were four times more likely to lack access to a primary health care provider.
In the United Kingdom, increases in the supply of general practitioners have been positively correlated with reduced rates of hospital admissions, when normalized for location, ethnicity and socioeconomic class.
Characteristics of Primary Care Delivery
Primary care is known to place a greater emphasis on the health of the whole person rather than a specific organ or system, which may contribute to positive effects such as reduced mortality rates due to the accumulated contribution of the care.
The close and ongoing relationship between patients and their primary care providers helps health professionals to understand their situation more completely and make the relevant recommendations.
Reduced Need for Specialist Care
Primary health care implemented in a timely and helpful manner can also reduce the need for specialist care, which may be unnecessary and have the potential to harm patients. When primary health practitioners are able to encourage preventative measures or make early interventions, referral to a specialist for disease-specific care can often be avoided, thus reducing the risks associated with treatment.
Some countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have forged the path for the future in relation to primary care, including improved information systems and video communication for specialist consulting while in the primary care setting.
Reviewed by Jonas Wilson, Ing. Med.