Spelunking the Healthcare System
By Andrew Ellsworth, MD
Wind Cave National Park is an underground maze of narrow passageways and chambers located under the prairie just on the edge of the Black Hills of South Dakota. My family and I took a tour of the park this summer and were astounded at how expansive and complex it is. Established as the 8th national park in 1903, Wind Cave National Park is one of the largest and most complex underground cave systems in the world. There are over 140 miles of interconnected passages compacted into approximately one square mile. They are still exploring and finding more!
One of the early explorers of the cave was Alvin McDonald. He was only 16 when he began exploring the cave for miles at a time by candlelight. He eventually knew the cave so well that he began to guide tours through it. As the story goes, he once left a group alone for a bit as he explored a new passageway. He made his way back to the surface and back home, only to realize later that night that he forgotten his group! Upon realizing his mistake, he immediately went back for them. Imagine being lost in an underground cave without a guide!
Much like the complexity of Wind Cave, our healthcare system is an expansive maze of diseases, tests, hospitals, specialists, and medications. It is difficult to imagine someone being able to navigate this confusing system without a trusted primary care provider to serve as their guide. Primary care providers are the medical professionals you choose to be in charge of your personal care. They can be a doctor, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, medical home, or clinic. People who have a primary care provider for the majority of their medical care, who have continuity of care, are healthier. Studies have found that if you have a primary care provider to help guide you, you are less likely to go to the emergency room, less likely to be hospitalized, more likely to trust and follow medical advice, and are happier, healthier, and will be generally more satisfied with your care. Your primary care provider is your Alvin McDonald, guiding you through the healthcare maze and helping you avoid those dead ends. But unlike Alvin McDonald, they won’t forget about you! Your primary care provider can be your first stop for care, catching problems early on, and keeping you on track for a lifetime of good health.
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