It doesn’t take much to see that the typical primary care experience is less than ideal. Well-intentioned providers who would prefer focusing more on each patient are forced to prioritize volume within the confounds of the current healthcare reimbursement system. The more patients they can fit through the door, and the faster they can see them, the more “successful” they are in their practice.
This model of primary care is unsustainable and can cause more harm than good for many patients. By shifting the focus from quick treatments of symptoms to one that digs deeper into root cause of illness and allows more time for patients to meet with providers, we can start delivering more impactful primary care.
Conventional primary care
In the conventional model of primary care, patients with chronic diseases are often neglected and those who are interested in preventative care are often only seen once a year. Primary care providers are also facing burnout in record numbers. Another harmful effect of the conventional model of care is illustrated in the emergence of an overreliance on prescription medications. In their efforts to offer patients quick treatment, pharmaceuticals often only treat symptoms of an illness, not root cause. In some cases, this leads to overprescribing and the results can be devastating. One of the most prominent examples is the opioid crisis that claimed the lives of more than 75,000 in 2021 alone. But even comparatively harmless drugs, such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) used to treat ulcers and chronic heartburn, can lead to fractures and other risks when prescribed long-term.
The difference of Precision Health Care
A conventional approach to care is crucial in treating acute, severe illnesses and should by no means be counted out. However, a majority of noncommunicable diseases could benefit from a different model: a more comprehensive approach that leans on functional and integrative medicine. Precision Health Care embraces the strengths of the conventional model, but also aims to address the underlying causes of disease first through functional and integrative perspectives. This type of approach within the primary care model can offer new hope to patients struggling with conditions that cannot be alleviated with medications alone by providing a more personalized and comprehensive look at their health.
To illustrate this difference, consider autoimmune disease. An umbrella term for roughly 80 different conditions, autoimmune disease affects as much as 4.5 percent of the world’s population, making it one of the most common disorders known. Types of autoimmune disease range from non-life-threatening conditions such as vitiligo and psoriasis, to potentially fatal conditions like multiple sclerosis. Despite this range, the majority of these conditions are driven by an overactive immune response that leads to inflammation, which drives downstream symptoms. Primary care providers within the conventional medical model may treat autoimmune disease with a combination of immunosuppressants and anti-inflammatory medications. However, these treatments only address the immune response itself, not the underlying reason why the immune system is responding in the first place.
A Precision Health Care approach may begin with these medications to treat acute effects, but only as a starting point. Its main focus is to identify the cause of the inflammation and eliminate it altogether. For example, one possible cause could be a condition commonly referred to as “leaky gut syndrome,” seen in individuals with a diet rich in processed foods, chronic exposure to environmental toxins, or overconsumption of alcohol. This occurs when the one-cell barrier that separates the colon and the bloodstream is compromised. As a result, contents in the colon leak into the bloodstream, causing an immune response that can lead to systemic, chronic inflammation.
In order to prevent inflammation from possibly leading to even more serious diseases (including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers), the Precision Health Care model could utilize a functional/integrative medicine approach to heal the gut through a combination of nutritional alterations and personalized supplementation. Primary care providers practicing this way could also work closely with the patient to introduce a variety of other lifestyle changes that could potentially support the body’s own healing intelligence. This type of care requires more time with patients and multiple touchpoints throughout the year – a model that supports provider-patient relationships and whole-person care.
You deserve better health care
Unfortunately, the conventional approach to primary care is not enough to address disease in a way that leads to long-term health and longevity. A more effective approach would be to arm primary care providers with not only conventional medical knowledge, but also functional and integrative certifications from respected institutions such as the Institute for Functional Medicine, the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, and the American Board of Integrative Medicine. Most importantly, patients must be able to seek a primary care provider who gives them the time and attention needed to address their condition and help them reach optimal health.