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What Is the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Care?

Primary care physicians see patients first and refer them to specialists for certain problems.
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  • Written By: Sandra Koehler
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2014
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A car engine needs routine diagnostic and maintenance procedures to keep it running up to its full potential. Similarly, the human body requires regular medical monitoring and the occasional medical procedure or treatment method to maintain overall health. Primary and secondary care are the two main divisions of health care that provide all the necessary components to preserve well-being.

Working in conjunction, primary and secondary care allow medical professionals to “divvy up” the extensive effort required to keep the body in a state of maximum health. Though similar in nature with many overlapping elements, the design of primary and secondary care allows individuals to gain the greatest degree of treatment by highly specialized medical professionals. Without this split, physicians, for example, would need to know everything there is to know about every known illness, injury, and disease, including the best treatment and rehabilitation methods available to regain health.

By splitting medicine into primary and secondary care, an individual can receive an initial diagnosis from the primary care physician and then transfer to a secondary care provider who specializes in that particular diagnosis. This ensures the individual is receiving the best possible customized care. This secondary care often incorporates things such as precise, targeted medications and treatment options a primary care physician cannot provide. Secondary care also encompasses specific medical disciplines, such as physical, occupational or respiratory therapists, and mental health professionals, trained in regaining function and the overall skills necessary for everyday tasks and activities.

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Distributing responsibilities into the subsections of primary and secondary care allows medical professionals to concentrate their skills and knowledge to a particular venue. For instance, take cancer. Cancer is a broad term for a large number of diseases, all related to the development of abnormal cells that destroy healthy cells. Treatment of cancer is dependent upon the area and extent of the disease, and relies on the collaboration of primary and secondary care professionals to maximize the positive outcomes related to fighting off the cancer.

A diagnosis of cancer may come from the primary healthcare physician. The treatment, however, is given through the secondary healthcare provider, the health professionals trained in the specific type of cancer. This can include surgeons, physicians trained in radiation and medications, therapists skilled in improving or recovering function, mental health providers to aid in dealing with the stress that comes with a serious ailment, and any other medical professionals required to deal with pre-existing medical issues that may inhibit treatment.

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