Most of us are familiar with general health recommendations that promote good health outcomes as well as enhance longevity. These recommendations include eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, smoking cessation and having a strong network of social support.
There is increasing evidence of another surprising factor that can enhance one’s health and promote longevity: seeing the same primary care physician over a period of years. This is referred to as continuity of care, and is defined as having an ongoing therapeutic relationship between the patient and the physician in the primary care setting.
There are a number of studies that support this idea. Research previously published in France, Canada and the Netherlands indicates that people who have good continuity of primary care live longer than people who do not have such good continuity. In July, researchers at the University of Exeter published in the British Medical Journal a study called “Keeping the same doctor reduces death risk.” They examined health care outcomes in nine countries, including France, England, the United States, Canada and South Korea. Their findings showed that people who see the same doctor again and again have lower death rates.
As we have entered into a time where medical care increasingly uses technology and computers to diagnose and treat various ailments, this research from England seems to support the idea that the human side of medicine remains extremely important and can even be lifesaving.
For one, trust between the patient and physician increases as the duration of their relationship lengthens. As trust increases, there is improved patient satisfaction and higher likelihood of following the physician’s recommendations.
Shared decision making improves with a strong doctor-patient relationship. If you have an enduring relationship with your physician, then your preferences and values will be incorporated into medical decisions. The Kaiser Permanente health care system in Colorado has data showing people who have good continuity of care are less likely to visit the emergency room and less likely to be hospitalized.
As the medical care system has become more disjointed in recent years, it is increasingly difficult to maintain a long-term relationship with one’s primary care physician. In part, this is due to the various options that are available to the general public seeking medical care. These options include going to urgent care centers, going to walk-in clinics at retail pharmacies and receiving virtual care through online methodologies.
While many people in the health care field tout these alternate methods of seeking health care because they are convenient and expand access, they disrupt continuity of care. Therefore, it is refreshing to be reminded that the human and personal aspect of medical practice is still a cornerstone of good care and that it can be life enhancing.
Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals.