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Can a Primary Care Provider Lower Your Healthcare Costs?

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A lot of people feel powerless to reduce the cost of their healthcare. The cost of medical care is rising as well as insurance premiums. Insurance companies and hospitals seem to obscure prices and are often a barrier between physicians and patients. Patients can’t negotiate with doctors or insurance companies. Often, doctors don’t know how much a particular test or medication will cost the patient, although we try to be mindful of that.

Is there anything we can do to save money?

A good analogy would be comparing your healthcare to owning a car. I try and maintain my vehicles to the best of my ability. I do regular oil changes and maintenance myself but sometimes I need to take it to a mechanic. I have known people that neglect their cars, but who usually ends up paying more? We could both end up on the side of the road, but this is less likely if you take care of your car from the beginning.

Why do some people postpone regular car maintenance? Maybe it’s a chore that they just continue to put off, even when they mean to. Maybe they are nervous that the mechanic will discover a big, expensive problem that they can’t afford to take care of, so they avoid going in at all. The reality is, whatever the reason, the normal wear and tear will eventually catch up. When it comes to lowering the cost of healthcare over the course of our lifetime, there are things we can do which are inexpensive and will keep us in better shape, while heading off larger problems down the road.

Similarly, we often see our doctor only when something has gone wrong. And by that point, we may require additional screenings, tests or medications to get us back on the right track. Not only does this end up eating up our valuable time, but the consequences can be extremely costly.

What can we do to avoid this kind of desperate situation? Establishing a relationship with a primary care provider is a good start.

When was your last primary care exam? If it's been over a year, let's get your health back on track.

A primary care provider is a physician or other provider that serves as the quarterback on your healthcare team or maybe like the head mechanic. They should be able to assess the situation as a whole and also point you towards someone else like a specialist or therapist if needed.

There are screening tests for cancer and other conditions that should occur regularly, just like you might change your oil every 10,000 miles even when things are going well. If something goes wrong, I might have to order diagnostic tests, like putting the on-board diagnostics scanner on the computer in the car.

Your primary care provider can also recommend vaccines that might be needed. I think vaccines are kind of like seatbelts. They are there to protect you and keep you out of the hospital or out of harm’s way. Do seatbelts sometimes hurt or cause bruising? Yes, they can be an inconvenience. But statistically, they will most likely save your life. 

And just like I might be aware of my own car’s shortcomings, idiosyncrasies and maintenance schedule over time, this is similar to a relationship that takes a while to develop with a physician. By building a trusting relationship with your doctor, you will be more inclined to share your healthcare concerns so that they may help. A primary care provider can also work with you on any acute and chronic illnesses because they will be familiar with your medical history. This can lead to a better quality or longer life. Their biggest responsibility is to take all of the information about your health and use it to create a game plan to keep you well in the long run. 

Going to see your doctor for an annual wellness visit pays off over time. Visiting the ER when you have an emergency is expensive. The average emergency department visit costs over $1200! Studies in the early 1990s showed that states with higher ratios of primary care providers saw decreased rates of mortality. The same was true in England where an additional primary care provider per 10,000 people saw a 6% decline in mortality.

Having more primary healthcare professionals per person is associated with lower healthcare costs. That’s because you aren’t breaking the bank with a total engine replacement. You’re preventing a complete breakdown through routine engine checkups. 

So, don’t make a meaningless excuse to avoid going to your primary care provider. Find the time and prevent something today that may get much worse, not to mention much more expensive, if you wait.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Jan. 24, 2019. 

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