Preventive care is essential for good health and longevity. Getting the right preventive care at the right time—including regular checkups and screenings for things like cancer and chronic health conditions—helps patients and providers catch diseases earlier. That can often lead to more options for early treatment. Prevention can reduce the risk of chronic disease, disabilities, and premature death.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets the preventive care they need. While there is room for improvement in preventive care for everyone, minority populations have lower rates of receiving preventive care compared to white populations. There are several things that contribute to disparities in preventive care, including difficulty accessing care, cultural beliefs, cost, and awareness.

Health experts have pushed for more access and education around what types of preventive care people need and when. These efforts are critical to bridge the gaps for communities at high risk of chronic disease and premature death. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), and other agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognize the importance of preventive care in reducing healthcare costs, increasing life expectancy, and improving quality of life for millions of people in the U.S.

Few Americans Get Recommended Preventive Care

In one study, only 8% of U.S. adults age 35 and older got all the “high-priority, appropriate clinical preventive services recommended for them.” About 5% didn’t get any preventive care at all. That includes things like:

  • Annual wellness visits (physicals)
  • Well-child visits
  • Regular dental checkups
  • Vaccinations
  • Cancer screenings

Health Disparities Make It Harder to Access All Types of Care

A significant challenge in the U.S. healthcare system is overcoming the health disparities that make it hard for some communities and populations to access consistent, high-quality care.

  • Lack of awareness. Many people are unsure about what preventive care, diagnostic services, and treatments they need, or how to get them.
  • No primary care provider. Having a primary care provider (PCP) is key to quality preventive care. They take a holistic view of patient health, coordinating with specialists and hospitals to help ensure patients get the care they need.
  • High cost of care. Those who lack insurance, or have a high-deductible plan, might avoid getting care because they can’t afford it.
  • Limited access to care. Patients who live in rural communities, or lack reliable transportation might not be able to get in to see a doctor regularly.
  • Discomfort or fear. Some people fear going to the doctor or the hospital and miss out on important preventive care and treatment that could reduce their risk of chronic illness and premature death.

Racial Disparities in Chronic Illness and Care Access

In the U.S., persistent racial disparities exist in healthcare coverage, chronic health conditions (including mental health), and mortality rates. The Center for American Progress published data in 2020 outlining some of these disparities. When compared with white communities, minority communities were more likely to experience:

  • Lower insurance rates
  • Higher rates of chronic illness, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and obesity
  • Higher infant mortality rates
  • Higher cancer mortality rates
  • Serious mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and severe trauma

Many of these issues are related to what health experts call social determinants of health (SDOH). These are factors in a person’s environment—where they live, work, play, and worship—that affect overall health, quality of life, and risk of illness or disease. Genetics and family history can also play a big role in your health risk.

How Preventive Care Bridges Health Disparities

Most people don’t have a lot of control over their SDOH and genetic risks. But there are things you can do to improve your overall health. Preventive care is one of the most effective ways to bridge gaps in care. Plus, most preventive care is available at little or no cost if you’re insured. For those without insurance, there are organizations that help cover the cost of screenings or offer low-cost options to get recommended care.

Lower your risk of chronic illness

Regular preventive care is the best way to reduce your risk of developing a severe or chronic illness. Chronic conditions often develop slowly over time. Seeing a provider regularly to get your health checked can help you or your doctor spot signs of early disease and take steps to improve your health. For example, your doctor will monitor your blood pressure and identify if your numbers are going up. They can help you make dietary and lifestyle adjustments to lower blood pressure naturally. They can also prescribe medications to keep blood pressure down and reduce damage to your heart and blood vessels that can lead to stroke or heart disease.

Reduce the risk of premature death

Catching diseases early—everything from the flu to cancer—can allow for more treatment options. Getting all your recommended preventive care, including screenings and vaccinations, can help lower your risk of illness and disabilities that can lead to premature death. For example, getting colorectal cancer screenings beginning at age 45 (or earlier if you are at high risk) is the most effective way to spot early signs of colon cancer. Detecting colorectal cancer when it’s in the early stages gives you a much higher chance of survival. The same is true for many other cancers, as well as chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Improve your quality of life

Doctors can help you take steps to reduce your risk of developing certain chronic conditions, or catch diseases early when treatment options are less invasive.

How to Get the Preventive Care You Need

These steps can help you access the right preventive care in the right place at the right time.

Schedule an annual checkup with a PCP

Start by seeing your primary care provider. If you don’t have a PCP, you can search online to find one near you that is accepting new patients. People of all ages should have a regular family medicine practitioner who they see at least once a year for an annual physical. They will monitor your health over time to assess trends and identify things that may indicate a problem, including:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Elevated blood sugar
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Gaps in vaccinations
  • Concerning skin changes
  • As well as perform specific exams for men and women, such as a pelvic exam or prostate exam

A primary care provider will also review your medications each time you visit, or more often if you get a new prescription. This is especially helpful for people who see multiple doctors and specialists or are admitted to the hospital for care. When those doctors prescribe medications, your PCP can check to make sure they won’t interact with other medications or cause problems. They can also help you understand how and when to take your meds, and address concerns or side effects. If there’s a problem with one or more prescriptions, they can consult with your specialty physician(s) to find an alternative.

Get regular screenings

Regular screenings are another essential part of preventive care. The screenings you need depend on things like your:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Family history
  • Current health and diagnoses
  • Medical history

Your primary care provider can help you understand exactly what you need and when to get it. Most preventive screenings are covered by insurance, including Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance.

Preventive care is an essential step to better health for people of all ages. Talk to your doctor today—or find a PCP if you don’t have one yet—to get started.