Your cardiologist focuses on your heart, your pulmonologist focuses on your lungs, and your endocrinologist focuses on your diabetes, but your primary care physician focuses on you—the whole person. Each member of the health care team plays a critical role in ensuring you live a long and fulfilling life, and none should be left out. However, there’s growing evidence that when you include a primary care provider in your overall health care team, you, the patient, do better.
On this fall day, it may be appropriate to think of health care in terms of football. On your favorite team, there are many star players. The running back is eager to carry the ball and run for a touchdown. The wide receivers are sure the next long bomb will get them an easy 6 points, and the kicker knows the way to sure points is to put him in for a field goal. Who weighs all those completing ideas and interests? The one who knows the whole team and all its important players. The coach knows and considers the team’s long-term goals. Should we win tonight’s game at the expense of losing the rest of the season? Or would it be better to save our running back for next week when we will face that legendary defense? Only the coach can consider all the options and make the best decision for the team.
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Now think of your body as a team. Each star player, your heart, your lungs, even your skin has a specialist physician. And often, each of those specialists is interested in making sure the star player is as healthy as possible. The role of your primary care doctor is like the coach. Your primary care physician knows your preferences, your history, and your ultimate goals. They can help you decide which play to call. Without a coach, all the star players, left to their own devices, can make for a bad day on the field, or a losing season.
When your doctor knows you, has been with you through thick and thin, through sickness and health, you and your doctor will work toward your common goals. Your primary care doctor will know the studies you’ve had to address your nagging problems, and won’t subject you to repetitive testing. Your primary care doctor will know how your loved one died, and that you would never want to be kept alive on a machine. Your primary care doctor will know how hard you’ve tried to quit drinking, and have compassion for you when you try to quit again. While the star players have an important role, the primary care physician—“the coach”—and the team around that physician has the best shot at calling the plays that ensure you have a winning life and your health care doesn’t get fumbled.
Let me give you a real-life example. I was caring for a patient who was diagnosed with cancer in the hospital. The nutrition expert said my patient had to eat more before she could go home. The surgeon wanted to give her a feeding tube so she could eat more, so she could go home. The patient just wanted to go home to spend as much time as she had left with her loved ones. As her primary care doctor, I was able to understand her underlying motivations and spend the time to get her the help she needed at home and get her where she most wanted to be.
When it comes to your health care, remember that having a primary care “coach” on your team will keep you in the game of life longer and help you play the game on your terms.
Dr. Wade See, a third-year resident physician with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247-3306.