HINES-MAYS Headshot_web
Local News

Health & Wellness 2022: Primary care physicians help navigate a complex health system

The health care system can be essential to maintaining wellness. It can also be frustratingly complex. When people seek to get value from the system, it helps to have a friend in their corner.

Crystal Hines-Mays

That’s where primary care physicians come in. Think of them as professional friends in the most important game people play, their health.

They are guides, advocates, teachers, coordinators and friends all rolled into one, according to Dr. Crystal Hines-Mays, a primary care physician with Specialty Physicians of Illinois.

The numbers of people who have primary care physicians trending downward in recent years, according to an oft-cited 2015 study. It found that about 25% of Americans do not have a primary care physician.

Editor’s note: This story is the eighth in a series originally published in the Chronicle’s April 1 print edition, part of the annual Health & Wellness supplement sponsored by Franciscan Health.

Hines-Mays thinks people might have incomplete understanding of the role PCPs can play in their health care. PCPs see patients as much more than a health history on a chart.

“My goal is to have a relationship with the patient, for them to feel comfortable with telling me whatever bothers them, whether that be physical, mental, things that are going on at home, things that are going on at work,” Hines-Mays said. “All of that impacts your life. All of that impacts your health.”

Being inquisitive and caring about patients’ whole life is what helps PCPs provide the best guidance, she said, because they learn what patients’ health goals are and understand the context in which they are pursuing those goals.

They invite patients to share information about their work life, home life, hobbies and hopes. The stories patients tell about themselves add depth to the detailed medical history each patient has and help inform recommendations for everything from routine screening tests, treatments and recommendations for consultations with specialists.

A PCP also asks patients about their life and health goals. Hines-Mays said she seeks to become a partner with her patients to help them understand how they can achieve their goals.

For example, when a PCP refers a patient to a specialist, that’s not the end of the journey. After the patient visits the specialist, the PCP will continue to provide guidance, helping the patient understand and act on the specialist’s diagnosis and recommendations.

Pandemic underlines the mission
Like all health care workers, the COVID-19 pandemic has put PCPs under tremendous strain during the past two years, but Hines-Mays said the crisis has also helped renew her sense of mission to be there for her patients.

“It is not just a job it’s a passion,” she said. “You’re dealing with a pandemic where people are frightened.”

The rapidly changing conditions of the pandemic meant that new information was coming fast and from multiple sources, making the PCP’s role as a source of clarity even more important.
Plus, Hines-Mays found that many of her patients were not only frightened and uncertain, they were lonely.

“They were isolated. A lot of times I would just call them or do a video chat just to say hello. They were happy with that.”

Mind and body
The value of those informal connections continued even when patients could return to the office, she said, and that underlines an aspect of PCP work that many people might not realize: They are trained to help patients with mental and emotional struggles as well as physical wellness.

“We have been trained on how to diagnose some of the more common mental health illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and even recognizing schizophrenia,” she said.

A PCP can provide treatment options for those conditions or might refer a patient to a mental health specialist, depending on the situation.

The main thing PCPs do is help patients achieve the “best version” of themselves, she said.

“I feel rewarded to be able to have this relationship with the patients, not only taking care of their physical needs but that friendship is important to me,” she said. “It’s a professional friendship but it’s a great relationship.”

Health & Wellness 2022 stories

Community Calendar

News by email

Subscribe to The Latest (daily headlines email)

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.

Free weekly newsletter

Subscribe to The Weeks (weekly newsletter)

* indicates required

Recent video: Progress on police reform, part 2