Over the past few years, primary care has once again become a hot topic in the healthcare industry. Hospital systems have bought up primary care doctors in their markets to preserve and strengthen their on-going relationships with patients. Payers, including Medicare, are finding new ways to reimburse primary care providers in order to influence how they deliver their care. Venture funds have also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in both office-based and telemedicine-based primary care.

What do all of these efforts have in common?

Every one of these players understands that primary care has a disproportionate value to any healthcare strategy. Primary care doctors represent a small portion of overall cost of care, but they greatly influence how care is delivered downstream, through whom they refer to and how they recommend follow-up care.

Also see: The next innovation in controlling healthcare costs

And, employers are starting to catch on to the importance of primary care, especially as they roll out programs like high deductible health plans, wellness coaching, price transparency, EAPs and even second opinion services. That’s because as more of the responsibility for care gets pushed to the employee through these programs, it’s more critical than ever to give them a trusted primary care provider to help them get the right care, at the right time, at the right price.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

Here are a few reasons why primary care should be a part of your benefits strategy:

1. A great primary care doctor can help your employees assess what care they really need.

Recent studies have shown that while HDHPs can reduce wasteful utilization of care, these plans can also sometimes discourage people from seeking care that’s actually necessary. And it is easy to see why. Without training, it’s hard to tell the difference between symptoms that are truly concerning and ones that will fade over time. A good primary care doctor can help your employees make smart choices about their care, to optimize health outcomes without wasting money.

2. A great primary care doctor can help drive utilization of health and wellness tools.

In a recent pilot, we found that patients are much more likely to adopt and properly use a wellness app when it’s recommended by a physician than when it is rolled out without a primary care partner. While employers can and should play a role in providing tools to improve employee health, involving the primary care provider can make these tools more credible as well as applicable to the specific healthcare context of each employee.

Also see: Employers prioritizing wellness over ACA compliance

3. Giving employees access to primary care saves you money.

It takes an average of 21 days to get in to see a primary care doctor in the U.S., so people often opt to visit specialists directly, or choose the more costly options of urgent care or ERs. Studies show that when you improve access to primary care, employees stop using these more expensive settings for primary care, incur fewer downstream costs and receive a higher quality of care.

Also see: Employers falling short on managing healthcare costs

As you’re thinking about your 2017 benefits plan, remember to make great access to primary care part of your healthcare strategy. This can be anything from a benefit design that encourages access to primary care (i.e. through lower co-pays), or a network design that has adequate primary care coverage, or even a dedicated center for your employees.

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