04/25/2012 04:30 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Your Health Is in Your Hands

Think health reform is solely in the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, and giant corporations? It's not. Every time you go to the doctor, you have the chance to help reform our health care system into a more streamlined, effective, and inexpensive machine.

It's called voting with your dollars. And you can cast your vote with your primary care doctor. I may be a little biased as a family medicine physician, but the truth is that primary care doctors -- like family doctors, internists, OB-GYNS, and pediatricians -- are crucial for making our health care system effective... and cost-effective. I've been thinking more about the value of primary care after returning from the big TEDMED conference last week, which envisioned options for how to improve our nation's health.

In our book, The New Prescription, my coauthor and I found a number of examples of how having access to a primary care provider is linked to better health and well-being while keeping medical care costs under control. A good primary care doctor can help keep you from falling through the cracks when you're sick. This professional can steer you toward treatments that actually work. Your primary care doc can help you spend less of your time and money in the doctor's office and hospital. Isn't that the goal for your family? It is for mine.

Unfortunately, America is losing its base of primary care physicians and nurses just as we're hitting a perfect storm of an aging population that needs these services more than ever. It's not from lack of demand or need, but because of a tangled web of outside pressures, like:

  • Financial incentives that coax young doctors toward specialties that pay much better
  • Better prestige in certain specialties, which offer opportunities to use cutting-edge technology compared to the image of being a harried, overworked primary care doc using simple, less "cool" methods to improve patients' health (like actually talking with them)
  • Structural issues within medical schools and residency programs that encourage specialties at the expense of primary care
  • Government regulations

Primary care is still attracting young doctors and soon-to-be doctors who have the vision to see that they can have a major impact on patients' health by choosing this route. But we need more young professionals heading in this direction. And the primary-care field needs to offer them cutting-edge (communication) tools, the time to use them, and the rewards that comes with a job well-done.

You don't have to wait for someone else (the government, big business) to fix the system. You can do your part today by:

  • Finding a primary care physician now (before you really need one). Find one you "click" with and respect. This is important, just like when you're looking for a clergyperson, a yoga teacher, or a hairdresser. You want someone who'll speak your language, listen to you, and prescribe strategies that you want to adopt.
  • Go see this doc before you need care. If you wait until you're sick, you're more likely to need a trip to the ER, where the doctor doesn't know you and doesn't have a vested interest in your long-term success. Don't skip your wellness checkup, your cancer screening, or your flu shot because they cost a little -- your primary care provider can leverage this money like a good investment, helping ensure that it pays off big returns.
  • Listening to the doc. If you don't stick to your medication regimen or your weight-loss plan, was your time and money in the doctor's office well-spent?

And let your doctor know you want to stay healthy across your lifespan with fewer lab tests, X-rays, MRIs and CT scans, and unnecessary surgeries. Then make a plan together on how you'll improve your odds of reaching these goals.

For more by Dr. Cindy Haines, click here.

For more healthy living health news, click here.