Primary care in this country is dying. There are fewer available primary care doctors in this country, as more and more physicians either go directly into specialty care or choose a specialty after completing one of the primary care tracks (internal medicine, pediatrics, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology).
Why is this a problem? Primary care is the foundation of a health care system. Most problems and illnesses most people have can reliably be treated by a primary care doctor. When Iran wanted to develop its health care infrastructure, for example, they asked a family practice doctor to fly over and work with their medical leaders, not a urologist or cardiologist. If you don’t have primary care in your health care system, you end up way overpaying for unnecessary specialist care (think of sending a person to a urologist if they have a urinary tract infection instead of going to their family doctor, for example). You also can’t effectively triage people and get them to the right doctor. If someone is short of breath, do you send them to the cardiologist, the pulmonologist, the allergist, the rheumatologist, or the infectious disease doctor? Lose primary care and you lose the basis for your medical decision tree.
And it’s not just that physicians aren’t going into primary care, it’s that primary care doctors are often actually stopping practicing primary care. They find there are other ways they can make better money (or lose less money). When you see this in a health care system–that DOCTORS are quitting medicine, for whatever reason–think bad, bad health care system future.
Why is this happening? A number of reasons, but I’d argue it depends on who you ask:
- Primary care doctors: Money. All about money. Low reimbursement rates for seeing patients (especially compared to specialists who get paid much more handsomely for procedures). Long hours, relatively low pay compared to your colleagues. Lots of paperwork.
- Medical students: Time. All about time. 15 minutes to see each and every patient, no matter how sick they are? No matter if they’re crying for the first five minutes of it, or if they walk in having active chest pain and you need to get them over to a hospital via ambulance right away? 15 minutes even if they’re asking you to fill out 5 forms that take 5 minutes each? That makes no sense. (Primary care docs certainly care about time, and medical students certainly care about money, just illustrating two of the big issues for primary care today.)
I’d like to discuss each of these issues–money and time–a bit further, because I believe they have wide-reaching consequences on our health care system (since, as we said above, primary care is the foundation of a health care system):
Money. While you might just say, “Well duh, doctors, like everyone else, want more money,” it’s more significant than this. We pay doctors a certain amount based on what they do. Medicare sets these amounts, and most insurers use Medicare’s rates on which to base their own. The way that we pay physicians today, doing is rewarded much more than thinking is. Extreme example: A doctor who performs a surgery is paid much more than another doctor who sees a child for a rash and knows the rash will soon go away, since it’s just a virus. An even more real-life example: a physician gets to bill for a more complex visit (and better-paying one) by prescribing a medicine over not prescribing one. We wonder, “Gosh, why do patients always want something done–a blood test, a study, a scan–when often watchful waiting is the better choice for the patient?” Culture is certainly to blame, but perhaps so are doctors. Patients have learned that more (tests, studies, scans) is better because more is better: for physicians’ pocketbooks. There’s a clear incentive in the system for doctors to do more, so perhaps patients have just learned that more is better by watching us to begin with. (See this NYT article for a perfect example of “more is better.”) I’m not suggesting doctors do this consciously, or that this is the only reason, just one that should be considered as it has drastic consequences for health care costs and unnecessary procedures that unnecessarily place patients at risk.
Time. Borrowing this point from the Panda Bear: when doctors only get 15 minutes to see a patient, you leave them no choice but to start referring a patient out to specialty care when often the diagnosis just requires a bit more time to sniff out. A few more questions to come to the right one. But instead, in this system where each patient only gets 15 minutes of a doctor’s time per visit, everything is referred to a specialist (who often either gets a bit more time to see each patient, or at least is just dealing with one single issue). Can any adult medicine doctor manage someone’s heart failure leg edema? Sure! But put the heart failure in a 75 year-old with glaucoma, dry skin, lung cancer, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy, and it’s no wonder someone might say “Hey, go see a cardiologist about your leg swelling, I’ve got enough other problems to fix.” This not only leads to increased health care costs from unnecessary specialist care, but also leads to patient confusion (why am I seeing ANOTHER doctor?). I just read some study (can’t find it) linked somewhere saying that most specialists get referrals from primary care doctors without ANY documentation of why the patient is being refered? Perhaps there’s no time for the primary care doctor to write up the referral?
In typical Over My Med Body style, I think we need to address the root concerns identified above: time and money. Lack of primary care affects us all. (We Are All Connected.) I’m probably going to piss off both primary care doctors and specialists with my suggestions here, so please, leave your two cents on how these ideas might be improved.
Money: The simple answer is “pay primary care doctors more.” I believe this should be at the expense of specialists, meaning that the gap between specialists and primary care doctors’ incomes should shrink. Primary care is an incredibly challenging field–one of the most, in fact–and doctors should be better-compensated for practicing it. Perhaps, as well, they should be rewarded for good long-term outcomes for their patients.
Another idea I’d like to float down the river: pay primary care doctors per hour, like lawyers, instead of per patient, with minimums and maximums based on a patient’s comorbidities. So if a patient takes 15 minutes to see and 5 minutes to document, and another 5 minutes to arrange a CT scan for, the doctor gets paid for all 25 minutes (currently they only get paid for the 15 minute visit). All other doctors would still only receive payment for the 15 minutes to see a patient. I’ve suggested this idea before–pay primary care doctors for their paperwork–and I think it would pay primary care doctors better, allow them to provide better care for their patients, and encourage more medical students, residents, and other already-trained doctors to go into the field.
Time: Simply, doctors need to be given more time to see more complex patients. With the 15 minute system we’re in today, I think it has had the effect of trimming the fat from the patient visit, but it leaves little to no room for patient complexity or severity of illness.
I do think also that there are plenty of primary care options that should be open to nurse practioners and physician assistants. There are lots of circumstances where a patient needs to be seen by a doctor, but if the diagnosis is viral upper respiratory infection, why not allow a physician assistant to reassure a patient? I have trouble seeing the other side of this argument.