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Occupational Health Encounters Close Primary Care Gap

  • Published
  • 23 January 2023
  • Category
  • General

WorkCare’s occupational health physicians are preventive medicine specialists. While they focus on work-related issues, they often discover underlying health conditions while providing injury care guidance or reviewing an employee’s medical surveillance exam results.

Occupational clinicians typically refer employees with evidence of non-work-related conditions to their primary care provider for follow-up. These referrals are especially important when employees are made aware of “silent” conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, or when there is a clinical reason to assess symptoms an individual has dismissed as “nothing serious.”

An encounter with an occupational health professional (e.g. physician, nurse, nurse practitioner, physician assistant or other qualified provider) may be the only one an employee has in a given year. Every encounter is an opportunity to educate an employee about healthy behaviors and encourage recommended check-ups for disease prevention and care for personal health concerns.

Occupational health encounters also help ensure that employees are physically and mentally fit for work. When employers facilitate access to occupational clinicians, they reduce the likelihood of costly absenteeism and presenteeism linked to treatable acute and chronic complaints, and they demonstrate that they care about their employees’ health, safety and well-being.

Primary Care Shortage

There is a national shortage of primary care physicians. This raises a critical question: Who will provide the care workers need to stay safe, healthy and productive?

Primary care physicians comprise about one-third of the overall physician workforce in the U.S. – short of the 40 percent recommended by the Council on Graduate Medical Education, according to Primary Care in the United States, A Chartbook of Facts and Statistics published in 2021. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects a shortage of 17,800 to 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034 in its report on The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand.

In 2018, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 25 percent of U.S. adults did not have a primary care doctor; 50 percent of adults under 30 did not. Affordable Care Act provisions enacted in 2010 made free or low-cost preventive care more widely available, but many Americans still do not get recommended preventive care.

Skipping care to save money for other life essentials is relatively common. While most U.S. companies offer health insurance benefits, in some cases, employees say they cannot afford to pay the deductible. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of Americans working part time or in low-paid, hourly positions often do not have any health insurance coverage. In addition, race and ethnicity, lack of insurance coverage and certain geographic locations decrease the likelihood of obtaining primary care, according to an analysis published in Characteristics of Americans With Primary Care and Changes Over Time, JAMA Internal Medicine.)

While there is a well-established association between robust primary care delivery and better/more equitable health outcomes, the proportion of health care dollars going to primary care is shrinking, the Commonwealth Fund reports. If under-served populations experienced the same health care use patterns as populations with fewer barriers to access, the AAMC suggests the demand for primary care physicians would exponentially increase demand.

Healthy Workers = Productive Workers

The workplace is a well-established venue for injury prevention and onsite first aid. Medical surveillance exams in certain occupations are federally mandated, and work-related injury care beyond first aid is state-regulated. Workplace industrial athlete and wellness programs offer opportunities for ergonomic assessments, coaching and stretching, bio-metric screening, health risk assessments, immunizations, weight management, smoking cessation and other preventive interventions.

Occupational medicine physicians have the ability to fill care delivery gaps because of their background and training. To practice occupational medicine and attain board-certification from the American Board of Preventive Medicine, they must demonstrate competency in clinical preventive medicine and chronic disease management, as well as toxicology, environmental medicine, epidemiology, biostatistics, health service and population health management, regulatory compliance, and behavioral and mental health. Before getting into occupational medicine, many providers have served in the military or practiced in family, emergency or internal medicine settings.

Occupational health expertise is invaluable as employers and employees navigate the complex health care landscape. Whether occupational health practitioners are available onsite or virtually, they have a measurable positive impact on employees’ quality of life, health care costs and business results.

To learn more about WorkCare’s occupational health physicians and safety services, visit our Contact Page or email us at