Primary Care Providers Key to Healthy America

Featured in Stone County Enterprise, 3/18/2009 

          The United States prides itself on being a leader in advanced medical technology.  Our country houses many the best medical schools, specialty care dominates our system, and we have managed to inoculate ourselves from several serious life-threatening diseases that still continue to kill people in third-world countries every day.  However, you may be surprised to learn that in comparison with other developed countries, America’s health is relatively poor.  The average life expectancy for both men and women in the United States is significantly lower than those in Europe, despite the fact that American’s smoke and drink less than their European counterparts.  Even higher income citizens with access to adequate health coverage still have lower life expectancies.  One key fact that may be contributing to this dilemma – more and more Americans are choosing to bypass primary care providers and instead opting to self-diagnose and self-refer to medical specialists.

            A primary care provider (PCP) is a practitioner that is trained to diagnose and treat minor injuries and illnesses, manage long-term chronic illnesses, and determine when a patient’s condition warrants seeing a specialist.  These include Internists, Family Practice Physicians, Pediatricians, Obstetrics & Gynecology Physicians, and Nurse Practitioners.  PCP’s are often referred to as “gatekeepers” to your health plan.  PCP’s know your family history, what prescriptions you are taking, and previous and current medical conditions.  By taking all these factors into consideration, they are often better able to provide a more appropriate treatment plan.  “As patients get older, they need to have someone to coordinate their care.  They need someone who is looking out for the entire person rather than just each specific disease that they might see a specialist for,” says Brian Batson, MD, internal medicine physician and director of the Hattiesburg Clinic Hypertension Center of Excellence.  “As our population ages, we have a lot more people that are Medicare-age patients.   Even though they may have a heart doctor and a blood pressure doctor and a kidney doctor, they always need to maintain that ongoing relationship with a primary care doctor.”  While establishing that relationship with a PCP is crucial for older patients, it is equally important that younger patients do so as well.  “Patients need to establish a relationship before they are on Medicare.  They need to establish it when they are in their 30’s and 40’s so we can prevent these diseases that occur when they do get older,” adds Batson.  “So much of what we do in medicine in younger patients is preventative care.  If we can start the ball rolling at a younger age they may not have all these complications by the time they are older.”

            Establishing a relationship with a PCP early has shown in numerous studies to provide a variety of benefits such as reduced healthcare costs, reduced hospitalization rates, reduced mortality rates, and better quality of care.  Forty-one percent of all specialist referrals are made by the patients themselves.  Of that total, 60% referred themselves to the wrong specialist.  This can result in a gamut of doctor’s visits and tests that may or may not lead to an effective diagnosis and treatment.  According to a recent review conducted by the American College of Physicians (ACP), one PCP per 10,000 patients can reduce inpatient admissions by 5 percent, outpatient visits by another 5%, emergency room visits by 10 percent, and surgeries by 7 percent.  The study also reveals that the United States utilizes primary care less than any other developed country, yet we spend more on healthcare with less effective outcomes.  While medical specialists do play an important role in healthcare, they are often more effective when treatment is orchestrated through a primary care provider. 

            The ACP also cites several studies that indicate an increase in the supply of PCP’s for a geographical area can reduce mortality rates.  According to the Mississippi Department of Health (MSDH), both Forrest and Lamar counties have higher physician-to-patient ratios than the statewide average.  Both counties also have a lower mortality rate statewide for the three leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer, stroke, and accidents.

            Hattiesburg Clinic is committed to the health of South Mississippi and employs more than 70 primary care providers.  The Clinic has primary care offices in several locations,  including Hattiesburg, Collins, Columbia, Ellisville, Petal, Picayune, Poplarville, Prentiss, Purvis, Seminary, Sumrall, and Wiggins.  For more information and a complete listing of primary care providers, please log on to