Original Research

Utilization of Primary Care Physicians by Medical Residents: A Survey-Based Study



From the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, MI.


  • Objective: Existing research has demonstrated overall low rates of residents establishing care with a primary care physician (PCP). We conducted a survey-based study to better understand chronic illness, PCP utilization, and prescription medication use patterns in resident physician populations.
  • Methods: In 2017, we invited internal and family medicine trainees from a convenience sample of U.S. residency programs to participate in a survey. We compared the characteristics of residents who had established care with a PCP to those who had not.
  • Results: The response rate was 45% (348/766 residents). The majority (n = 205, 59%) of respondents stated they had established care with a PCP primarily for routine preventative care (n = 159, 79%) and access in the event of an emergency (n = 132, 66%). However, 31% (n = 103) denied having had a wellness visit in over 3 years. Nearly a quarter of residents (n = 77, 23%) reported a chronic medical illness and 14% (n = 45) reported a preexisting mental health condition prior to residency. One-third (n = 111, 33%) reported taking a long-term prescription medication. Compared to residents who had not established care, those with a PCP (n = 205) more often reported a chronic condition (P < 0.001), seeing a subspecialist (P = 0.01), or taking long-term prescription medications (P < 0.001). One in 5 (n = 62,19%) respondents reported receiving prescriptions for an acute illness from an individual with whom they did not have a doctor-patient relationship.
  • Conclusion: Medical residents have a substantial burden of chronic illness that may not be met through interactions with PCPs. Further understanding their medical needs and barriers to accessing care is necessary to ensure trainee well-being.

Keywords: Medical education-graduate, physician behavior, survey research, access to care.

Although internal medicine (IM) and family medicine (FM) residents must learn to provide high-quality primary care to their patients, little is known about whether they appropriately access such care themselves. Resident burnout and resilience has received attention [1,2], but there has been limited focus on understanding the burden of chronic medical and mental illness among residents. In particular, little is known about whether residents access primary care physicians (PCPs)—for either acute or chronic medical needs—and about resident self-medication practices.

Residency is often characterized by a life-changing geographic relocation. Even residents who do not relocate may still need to establish care with a new PCP due to health insurance or loss of access to a student clinic [3]. Establishing primary care with a new doctor typically requires scheduling a new patient visit, often with a wait time of several days to weeks [4,5]. Furthermore, lack of time, erratic schedules, and concerns about privacy and the stigma of being ill as a physician are barriers to establishing care [6-8]. Individuals who have not established primary care may experience delays in routine preventative health services, screening for chronic medical and mental health conditions, as well as access to care during acute illnesses [9,10]. Worse, they may engage in potentially unsafe practices, such as having colleagues write prescriptions for them, or even self-prescribing [8,11,12].

Existing research has demonstrated overall low rates of residents establishing care with a PCP [6–8,13]. However, these studies have either been limited to large academic centers or conducted outside the United States. Improving resident well-being may prove challenging without a clear understanding of current primary care utilization practices, the burden of chronic illness among residents, and patterns of prescription medication use and needs. Therefore, we conducted a survey-based study to understand primary care utilization and the burden of chronic illness among residents. We also assessed whether lack of primary care is associated with potentially risky behaviors, such as self-prescribing of medications.


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