Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Primary Care’s Image: A Problem?

Pauline Chen, a transplant surgeon and respected author of “Final Exam: A surgeon’s reflections on mortality” (Vintage Books) also write a “Doctor and Patient” column for the New York Times. On November 12, 2009, the topic was “Primary Care’s Image Problem”, in which she talks about the decreasing interest in primary care among medical students, and the perception among many, increased by many faculty members, that primary care was a backup to more “prestigious subspecialties…like dermatology, orthopedics, plastic surgery or radiology.” In particular, she talks of Kerry, one of her classmates, who wanted to (and did) enter primary care “despite” being at the top of her class, and how this amazed her friends. Dr. Chen addresses the attractions of the “ROAD” (radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, and dermatology) to financial success as well as greater prestige, and the challenges it presents for having an adequate supply of primary care physicians.

While scarcely optimistic (“But even with current legislative efforts to address educational debt, payment discrepancies and lifestyle differences, many medical educators worry that the results will not be enough….Why? It is due to an issue deeper than money and paperwork. While the frisson of continually advancing treatments and approaches to patient care seem to envelope most other specialties, the image of primary care remains one of a vaguely anachronistic practice — a group of doctors who do not stand on the forefront of creative change and who are continually left holding the biggest bag of administrative expectations and clinical care coordination and demands.”), she also notes that “That image, however, may be changing”.

Dr. Chen attended a meeting of the Association of Deans and Directors for Primary Care, held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Boston on November 9, 2009, where the discussion focused largely on changes in the type of practice, particularly in the creation of a “medical home” and a team approach to care. She quotes organization chair Bruce Gould, MD, of the University of Connecticut: “In a patient-centered medical home, I would not be the sole proprietor. Sometimes I would be the leader because of my specific skill set. But if we were dealing with adherence to diabetes care, the team’s social worker might be the leader….With a team approach each of us is freed up to practice at the top of our scope of training. And that leads to better patient outcomes and more job satisfaction.”

I admit that I found it somewhat frustrating, having been in the room, that the 3 physicians Dr. Chen quotes are all general internists, despite the fact that at least half the participants in the meeting and 2 of the 5 speakers were family doctors. I agree with the general theme expressed by many that it is important for primary care doctors to work together and not fight, but there are important differences in these specialties. In addition to the fact that family doctors care for adults and children and often pregnant women, the breadth of their practice makes them more suitable for rural practice, where there may be only a few doctors. While most family doctors do not practice in rural areas, about 20% do, which is comparable to the percent of the overall population; indeed, family medicine is the only specialty that “distributes” according to where people live.

More important for this discussion is that virtually all family physicians practice primary care, thus it is the primary care “bellwether”, going up more when student interest in primary care is up, and down more when it is down. Internal medicine, on the other hand, offers those who complete its 3-year residency the option of entering primary care / general internal medicine practice (or hospitalist practice, which is not primary care) or continuing into a subspecialty fellowship (cardiology, gastroenterology, pulmonary medicine, etc.); it is thus less sensitive to these ups and downs. As I have discussed previously (most recently in “Rankings of medical schools: do they tell us anything?” on September 25, 2009), the trend for general internal medicine is definitely down. General pediatrics, the third primary care specialty, has not seen a decrease, although the distribution and career trajectories are an issue, as I have discussed in “Primary care, pediatrics, and physician distribution” on May 21, 2009. Indeed, facing a shortage of pediatric subspecialists, many pediatrics groups are trying to encourage subspecialization.

Dr. Chen’s article ended with some guarded optimism, and an invitation to join the discussion on Tara Parker-Pope’s “Well blog”, “Giving primary care more respect”. With 180 responses (by November 16), it is clear that there are a lot of opinions out there, from physicians, medical students, other health professionals, and the general public. I admit to adding my comments, and “plugging” my October 8, 2009 blog piece “`Uncomplicated’ Primary Care?”, where I argue that primary care is anything but uncomplicated.

I thought that some comments on this from medical students on this issue might be welcome. The following comments are from students who spent 6 weeks with rural family physicians in Kansas between their first and second years of medical school, from quotes they gave to a reporter from the Kansas Family Physician, publication of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians:

This summer, I learned that people don’t choose family medicine because they want an easy profession. They choose it because they want to be life-long learners and truly want to help the community. Their knowledge base and diagnostic ability is no less than any specialist. The only difference they think ‘big picture’, and don’t focus on any one organ system.”

“A young man in his mid-30s came into the clinic. He was a partial quadriplegic of 15 years from a car accident. He was not there complaining of any acute symptoms or any problems; he was just there because he wanted to find a new doctor…Out of curiosity, I asked him what he was looking for in a physician. His only reply was: ‘I want someone who cares about me, not for me.’”

“I could not help but be impressed with the enormity of information family physicians are expected to ideally know. We are talking about working with every organ system of the body and also understanding the procedures and diagnostic tests that go along with these systems.”

“I learned family medicine is not simply caring for patients with chronic health issues or diagnosing and treating the common cold. While family physicians do both of those things almost every day, they also provide a variety of other care. They can deliver babies, provide women’s health, perform EGDs and colonoscopies, manage chronic pain, and diagnose extraordinarily well in the acute setting, just to list a small amount of what they do weekly.”

“Nothing compared to the feeling I got watching a family physician take care of the mother during delivery, perform an emergency C-section, and then treat the infant all within the same day. The ability of a family doctor to care for both mother and child simultaneously made me truly appreciate the rich complexity of family medicine.”

“A family physician should be held in the highest regard among physicians, for he or she must have the patience of a geriatrician, the gentleness of a pediatrician, the courage of an ER physician, the steady hand of a surgeon, and a knowledge base of every medical specialty.”

There are more, and many of them – which maybe I’ll post later – specifically talk to the role of the rural family doctor. Remember, these are not a random sample of students; they elected to do this experience. Many of them are from rural backgrounds and many are also planning careers in family medicine. All of them, having just finished their first year of medical school, have a long way to go before deciding on their specialty, and undoubtedly some will take some variant of the “ROAD”. We know from recent research that empathy takes a nose dive in the third year of medical school (“Are we training physicians to be empathic? Apparently not”, Sept 12, 2009).

However, it is great to hear these attitudes and know that at least among some students family medicine and primary care do not have an “image problem.” We can only hope that it persists in them, and in their peers. Hope, and do everything we can to foster it.

1 comment:

tooearly said...

good post. It is not hard to imagine why primary care is having such an image problem in this era of unsurpassed greed, selfishness and dishonesty. Why should Medicine be immune to the larger forces shaping society?

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