Primary Care Is Your First Line of Defense

Having a primary care physician who knows you leads to better healthcare

While it is tempting to search for answers to your health questions online — one in 20 Google searches asks for health-related information — the best source is really much closer to home.

The internet doesn’t know you, your family’s medical history or your lifestyle choices. However, your primary care physician (PCP) likely has all these details. It’s critical information that is needed in order to thoughtfully, consistently and efficiently diagnose, treat and prevent any number of chronic conditions and life-altering diseases that affect your quality of life.

The big picture

Knowing you is an essential benefit of the patient/PCP relationship — and that doesn’t just mean recognizing you when you come in with a fever or cough.

“Since I’m the doctor conducting my patients’ annual comprehensive health exam, I have the luxury of seeing them when they’re well,” explains John Podkowa, DO, a Southcoast Health primary care physician. “Instead of a relationship based only on solving health crises, I have time to build a rapport with a patient, ask questions and get to know that individual’s complete health picture — from family medical history to daily lifestyle choices. Forming relationships before problems arise leads to better treatment and outcomes.”

When a health issue does arise, knowing a patient’s physical, mental and emotional past and current status can help identify the best course of treatment. “Let’s say your blood work shows high cholesterol. Let’s also say I know you eat a vegan diet, run five days a week and don’t smoke, but you do have a family history of high cholesterol,” Dr. Podkowa says. “As your primary care physician, I know that telling you to exercise more and watch your diet isn’t sound advice. In this case, medication is probably the best course of treatment. On the other hand, if there’s wiggle room with risk factors, I might advise lifestyle changes.”

To achieve this level of individualized healthcare requires a meaningful relationship between patient and doctor, which is inherent to the PCP’s definition.

Know and tell

Preventive recommendations are strongly influenced by a patient’s family medical history. “From a cardiac or oncologic standpoint, for example, there are hereditary traits that are important to recognize, which may lead to earlier testing or more specialized testing — like a family history of ovarian cancer,” Dr. Podkowa emphasizes. “Diabetes, too, is hereditary. Having a patient’s complete family medical history is key to preventing disease.”

Correctly making the right medical diagnosis also relies on a patient’s personal medical and social history. “Most of the time, a cough is a simple cough,” Dr. Podkowa points out. “But if a 48-year-old patient who used to smoke comes to see me with a persistent cough that hasn’t gotten better over the past two months despite two trips to two separate walk-in clinics, I would recommend a chest X-ray and a more complete workup. I know this patient’s history, and combined with a long-term versus episodic approach to the problem, this tells me that something more than a cough might be going on. This gives me an advantage. I may be able to diagnose and treat a problem at the earliest and most curable stage.”

A system of comfort

Having a trusted relationship with a PCP is just the beginning, says Dr. Podkowa. “My job starts with recognizing a patient’s health problem, but it’s equally as important that I have the entire Southcoast Health system supporting me. I’m only as effective as our specialists, equipment, technology and everything else that makes Southcoast a high-functioning healthcare system. A big part of my job is helping patients connect with the right doctors and navigate the intricacies of our healthcare system.”

To a large degree, one of the most important roles of a primary care physician is to serve as the quarterback of your healthcare team. They look at the big picture, but also pay attention to the small details. They help coordinate and advance your care by working with sub-specialists, hospitalists, nurses, your insurance company and at times even your employer. This sets the PCP apart from any other medical resource and enables them to produce more consistent, efficient and well-rounded healthcare.

As for the internet’s ability to diagnose ailments, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that physicians correctly identified an illness or condition 72 percent of the time compared to a 34 percent accuracy rate for so-called digital docs. The diagnosis? Let Siri choose your music, but leave your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing to your PCP.

Building a relationship with a primary care physician is important to your health. Find a doctor you’d like to stick with at Southcoast Doctors or by downloading the Find a Doc app through iTunes. You can also call Care Connect at 844-744-5544.