Number of Americans with a primary care provider declined 2% over a decade, new study shows

social determinants
The number of Americans with a primary care physician declined in a little over a decade, a new study shows. (noipornpan/GettyImages)

Despite the health benefits, fewer Americans have a primary care provider, according to a new study.

The number of patients in the U.S. who have a primary care provider declined by 2% in a little over a decade, according to the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

While that may not sound like much, that decline translates to millions of Americans who do not have primary care, the researchers said.

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RELATED: Spending more on primary care translates to better patient outcomes, report says

In the study, researchers from Harvard Medical School looked at primary care use from 2002 to 2015, which raises concerns given that primary care is associated with better health among patients.

“Primary care is the thread that runs through the fabric of all healthcare, and this study demonstrates we are potentially slowly unweaving that fabric,” said the lead author David M. Levine, M.D., a Harvard Medical School instructor in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he practices internal medicine and primary care, in an announcement about the study.

“America is already behind the curve when it comes to primary care; this shows we are moving in the wrong direction,” Levine said.

The study found that in 2002, 77% of adult Americans had an identified primary care physician, a level that dropped to 75% in 2015. In addition, the study found a particularly marked decline in primary care among younger Americans and those without complex medical issues.

Having a primary care provider decreased across the board for Americans in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Among 30-year-olds, the number dropped from 71% to 64% from 2002 to 2015.

Among those with no complex conditions, having primary care declined in every decade of age through their 60s. The exception to the decline were less healthy patients. People with three or more chronic health conditions having a primary care physician remained relatively stable, the study found.

Patients who are male, Latino, black or Asian without insurance and lived in the South were much less likely to have a primary care doctor, the study found.

The researchers suggested several steps to stop the decline and increase the rates of Americans with primary care providers, including changes in the primary care payment system, a move toward value-based care and investments in new technology. They also called for creating incentives to encourage more physicians to choose primary care, particularly in rural areas, and increasing the number of Americans with health insurance.

RELATED: Study—Primary care accounts for a fraction of overall Medicare spend 

“To improve Americans’ health, we should prioritize investments to reinvigorate the American primary care system,” said senior author Bruce E. Landon, M.D., professor of healthcare policy in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School and professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he practices internal medicine.

A study released earlier this year from the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative found states that spend more on primary care have better patient outcomes, including fewer hospitalizations and emergency department visits. A separate study found a direct link between the number of primary care doctors and an increase in life expectancy.

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