An estimated 209,000 (1) physicians in the U.S. practice primary care, caring for a population that is approaching 325 million (2). Yet, of roughly 18,000 U.S. medical graduates every year, only 25% go into primary care (3). What is the importance of primary care and how do statistics support this case?
Primary care includes family medicine, internal medicine, nursing, nurse practitioners, pharmacy, pediatrics, general ob/gyn, gerontology, behavioral health, community health, optometrists, and the other people and professions who fulfill the general medical needs of patient populations.
Primary care professionals serve on the front lines of healthcare. For many, they are the first point of contact with the healthcare system. That means they are often the first to see depression, early signs of cancer or chronic disease, and other health concerns. They ensure patients get the right care, in the right setting, by the most appropriate provider, and in a manner consistent with the patient’s desires and values. Primary care professionals are, essentially, the quarterbacks of healthcare.
Why exactly is primary care important? Through routine check-ups, primary care can head potentially serious problems off at the pass. As a result, adults in the U.S. who have a primary care provider have 19% lower odds of premature death than those who only see specialists for their care (4).
And if prolonged life were not enough, primary care is important because it lowers costs, too. People who have a primary care provider save 33% on healthcare over their peers who only see specialists (5). Access to primary care helps keep people out of emergency rooms, where care costs at least four times as much other outpatient care (6). A study in a North Carolina ER found that nearly 60% of the patients’ problems could have been addressed in a primary care clinic for a savings of a whopping 320-720% – that’s a value of three to seven times less.
Catching and treating problems early, which happens during annual check-ups, is also cheaper than treating severe or advanced illness, which often bring patients to specialists. If everyone saw a primary care provider first for their care, it would save the U.S. an estimated $67 billion every year (7). Another study found that for every $1 increase in spending in primary care resulted in $13 in savings in overall spending (8).
The toll on the primary care team
The healthcare professionals who bring the most value to our healthcare system, however, are among those most likely to face burnout. Unchecked, burnout can push the clinicians we need most to leave practice or choose a different specialty. Research shows that team-based practices are uniquely suited to take some of the burden off physicians and distribute it among other primary care professionals, significantly increasing resilience and reducing burnout, improving patient outcomes, and cutting costs (9).
Indeed, the ROI of team-based care is compelling. In one study of a team-based model called a patient-centered medical home, the return was estimated at between 2.5 and 4.5 to 1 (10). In other words, the system gets back up to $4.50 for every dollar it puts in.
But relatively few healthcare dollars are currently invested in primary care. While 55% of office visits take place in primary care clinics, only 4-7% of healthcare dollars go to primary care, which reflects a gross misalignment of primary care reimbursement compared to other specialties, and a contributing factor to why so few medical students choose this path (11). Notably, industrialized nations who fare better than the U.S. in health – and there are many – tend to prioritize primary care through more aligned payment and workforce policies.
So why is Primary Care Progress so passionate about primary care? As the heart of our nation’s health, we can’t afford not to champion primary care – and the professionals who make up the primary care workforce. Learn more about our leadership and teaming programs for healthcare professionals.