By Yolanda Smith, BPharm
Primary care is the initial point of contact between a patient and the healthcare system that provides individuals with access to the information and resources they need for optimal health outcomes.
Primary healthcare professionals typically work with many different patients and have broad knowledge about various physical, psychological and social ailments that may affect their patients.
Aim of Primary Care
The main purpose of primary care is to improve the health of the public by providing easy access to medical care. It also focuses on the whole individual rather than on the illness of a specific organ, system or disease. It aims to improve their entire health and wellbeing by preventing or solving any health problems that may be present or potentially present.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are several key roles that primary care practitioners fulfil in their pursuit of this goal. These include:
- Providing a wider coverage of health care
- Preventing social disparities in health care
- Organizing health services to meet health needs
- Helping to make health and health care a part of public policy in every sphere
- Helping to train leaders in effective health care
- Increasing the level of participation by all those who have a stake in health, whether patients, physicians, public health workers, or those in the allied health services
Primary care practitioners are responsible for the ongoing health of their patients by preventing, diagnosing early and managing common health conditions. An important aspect of their work is making referrals to specialists as and when needed.
They are also in a unique position to understand and study the natural course of disease, the family setting in which the patient is placed, and to treat and follow up chronic or recurrent health conditions.
Benefits and Challenges of Primary Care
When implemented correctly, primary care is very beneficial for the health of patients and also reduces the financial burden on the public health system. This is partly because of fewer hospitalizations and less need for secondary and tertiary healthcare services.
Other benefits of primary health care include:
- Increased access to healthcare services
- Improved quality of health care
- Focus on preventive health
- Early intervention to prevent health conditions from developing
- Improved patient relationships
- Reduced need for specialist care
- Economic benefit in the form of several linked jobs
However, there are also several barriers that inhibit the benefits of primary care. A shortage of primary care physicians is a significant challenge, and the demand for new practitioners is currently growing at a faster rate than the supply. Additionally, the quality of care is variable between different practitioners, regions and countries.
After-hours care is typically available in less than half of primary care centers.
Types of Primary Care Providers
There are various types of primary care providers who are responsible for the ongoing healthcare of patients. Each of them is capable of acting as the point of entry for the patient into the health system for advice or referrals.
- Primary care physician
- Nurse practitioner
- Family practice doctor
- Internal medicine doctor
Each of these practitioners typically has a certain patient group with which they are most suited. They have a deeper knowledge of the health conditions that commonly affect these patients.
The primary care physician or general practitioner is the most common type of primary healthcare provider, and has the most general knowledge of patient illnesses, along with the widest variability in their patients.
It is important to note that non-primary care physicians do not offer the same degree of comprehensive and ongoing care as they relate to particular medical specialities. Primary care providers who are not physicians do offer some services at first contact, such as dietetic and lifestyle changes for diabetics and cardiac patients.
However, they function best as part of a team involved with primary health care.
The presence of trust between a primary care practitioner and the patient is important to maintain a strong relationship and get the most benefits from primary care. As the primary care practitioner is the point of entry for the public into the health system, patients should feel comfortable to discuss any signs or symptoms that they may be experiencing.
They should be free to share the complications and adverse effects of any treatment they are taking. They should also be ready to accept advice and recommendations from their practitioner accordingly.
It should be noted that each practitioner has a unique way of interacting with patients, and so individuals may need to try several physicians before finding one that they are happy and comfortable to work with on improving their health and wellbeing.
Reviewed by Dr Liji Thomas, MD.
Last Updated: Jun 30, 2016