Family doctor role clouded

Lisa Love hasn’t seen her doctor of 25 years since she discovered telemedicine.

Love tried virtual visits last summer for help with a skin irritation and returned for another minor problem. She doesn’t feel a pressing need to seek care the old-fashioned way, especially since she also gets free health screenings at work.

No more waiting for the doctor’s office to open. Convenience rules in health care now, where patients can use technology or growing options like walk-in clinics and urgent care centers to get help whenever they need it.

A survey last year found that about a quarter of U.S. adults don’t have a regular doctor. Some like Love wonder how much they still need one.

“Telemedicine probably can’t do everything … but for most of the things I might ever have, I’m pretty sure they can take care of it,” the Twin Falls, Idaho, resident said.

Health care experts said the changing, fragmented nature of care is precisely why people still need someone who looks out for their overall health, which is the traditional role of primary care physicians like family doctors and internists.

They know patients’ medical histories, and they’re trained to spot problems that may be developing instead of just addressing symptoms that prompted the patient’s visit. They also can make sure medications don’t conflict with regular prescriptions, and they can help make sense of the information patients dig up with a Google search.

But the nature of primary care is changing as patients branch off to drugstore clinics and urgent care centers. Practices are slowly shifting to more of a team-based approach that focuses on keeping patients healthy and reserves visits with a doctor for the more serious cases.

“The idea that the primary care physician is the one-size-fits-all solution … that’s going to change pretty dramatically,” said Sam Glick, an executive with the research firm Oliver Wyman.

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