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Whether you need medical care when you’re sick, or routine checkups, your primary care doctor is usually your first step in finding health care. Primary care doctors — who specialize in family medicine, internal medicine or pediatrics — take the lead in making sure you receive the right treatment at the right time, and in the right place.

Having a primary care doctor as your main source of care, and building a lasting connection with that doctor, can actually improve your health. What’s so great about having a primary care doctor as your main source of care?

Primary care providers don’t just concentrate on curing a fever or other illness. They consider your family history, your lifestyle and what you can do to improve your overall health. They try to make sure you have the knowledge and skills to be actively engaged in setting and working toward your own health goals. Many studies have shown that patients who take an active role in their own health care typically have better outcomes and lower health care costs.

Studies have also shown that getting regular primary care has a powerful effect on your willingness to seek medical attention sooner for potentially serious symptoms, rather than putting it off until the symptoms are more severe. Patients who trust their doctor are also more apt to take their medicine or stick to a treatment plan. Primary care doctors are experts in helping people reduce tobacco use, control high blood pressure, control asthma and control and prevent diabetes. Helping keep those conditions under control reduces health care costs.

A doctor who sees you regularly may also take a different approach to dealing with mild symptoms than an emergency room doctor who must first run tests to rule out many uncommon but possibly life-threatening conditions.

Research in the United States and other countries has shown the benefits of establishing a lasting relationship with a primary care doctor. A short list of those benefits include: longer life; less visits to the emergency room,; fewer hospital stays; and even higher infant birth weights. Patients are more apt to get regularly screened to prevent and treat diseases, increasing the likelihood of early detection and better outcomes.

In areas of the United States where there are more primary care providers per person, death rates for cancer, heart disease and stroke are lower and people are less likely to be hospitalized, according to a study published in the International Journal of Health Services Research. Decreasing the need for hospital stays, emergency room care, and specialist visits, helps control health care costs.

Collaboration between primary care and public health is key to resolving some of our country’s biggest health challenges. Many Americans suffer from chronic diseases rooted in lifestyle choices. In addition to encouraging healthy lifestyles, primary care doctors can also help advance policies at the local, state and national level that foster overall health.

Dr. James Hickey, a resident physician with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, may be reached at can be reached at 247-3306.