Saturday, August 14, 2010

Primary Care, IMGs, and the Health of the People

For several years now, there has been a great deal of discussion about increasing the number of physicians in the US through increasing the number of students in US medical schools. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has called for a very large increase, and it is in fact happening, both through the creation of new medical schools and the expansion of class size in existing schools. AAMC has also called for the expansion of post-graduate specialty training (residency) positions because medical school graduates have to do residencies before they become practicing physicians. What specialties those new positions are will thus determine the makeup of our physician workforce. If we need more primary care physicians we will need both more primary care residency positions and a greater interest on the part of medical students in entering those residencies, which I have discussed previously (Primary care specialty choice: student characteristics , July 12, 2010; Primary Care and Residency Expansion, January 7, 2010).

To recapitulate, increasing the probability that students will choose primary care requires using criteria actually associated with primary care choice, which are both demographic and based on the individual’s previous activities, mainly in volunteer service. The risk of relying on intention as expressed in an essay or interview is made clear in a recent letter to the editor in Family Medicine from the new Commonwealth Medical College in Pennsylvania. An “overwhelming majority” of the students who were accepted to the school had expressed, in their essays and interviews, a very high level of interest in primary care, and had “consistently cited a predilection for small towns,” high priorities for the school. By the time of matriculation, that is when they started school, that only 23% had any interest in any of the primary care specialties, including OB-Gyn!

If US medical schools graduate more students without comparable residency expansion, the probable outcome would be the displacement of graduates of foreign medical schools by graduates of US medical schools. This might, intuitively, sound like a good thing, given the question of whether graduates of foreign medical schools provide care of the same quality that US graduates do. This concern can be more than xenophobia; in the US accrediting bodies, the Liaison Committee for Medical Education (LCME) for allopathic medical schools and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) for allopathic residencies, along with the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) for osteopathic schools and residencies, provide very rigorous standards enforced by regular re-accreditation. Internationally, the thousands of schools are, in most countries, less standardized; not only may there be dramatic differences in medical education between countries but among medical schools within countries.

It is in this context that Norcini et. al. published “Evaluating the quality of care provided by graduates of international medical schools” in Health Affairs, August, 2010 (29[8]:1462-68), to significant national coverage; the article in the New York Times by Denise Grady on August 3, 2010 is called “Foreign born doctors give equal care in the US”, which seems to give us the answer. They do. That is not only reassuring, but could be raise the question “Why, then, increase the number of US medical graduates if the international graduates who come fill unfilled residency spots are just as good?” Well, for one thing there is the very important issue of “brain drain”; physicians from other countries, often underdeveloped countries with great physician shortages of their own, come to train in the US. Ostensibly, for most of them on training visas, the idea is that they will go back to their own countries with the new skills that they have acquired in the US and benefit their own people. In reality, most of them want to, and usually do, find a way to stay in the US. From an individual point of view – the ability of an individual to seek a better life for his/her family, or at least a higher income – it is consistent with the history of the US. From a societal point of view, however, this leaves their home countries with marked shortages of doctors; there are more Ghanaian trained physicians in the US and UK than in Ghana[1]. And, to the extent, which is often the case, that the medical education was paid for by the government and people of the country of origin, not the individual, it can be particularly inappropriate.

Another question is “is it true? That is, do Norcini and colleagues actually demonstrate that “foreign born doctors give equal care in the US”? The population that they studies was doctors in Pennsylvania, a big state with a lot of variety (rural/urban, rich/poor). They looked at physicians who were US-born graduates of US medical schools (USMGs), and compared them to both foreign-born graduates of foreign medical schools (IMGs) and to US-born graduates of foreign medical schools (USIMGs), most from those schools in the Caribbean, which I have previously discussed (Who will care for the underserved? The role of off-shore medical schools, June 2, 2010). They measured the “quality of care” by measuring length of stay and mortality rate of patients hospitalized for acute myocardial infarction (heart attack, MI) and congestive heart failure. They also looked at the outcomes by specialty (cardiologist, general internist, family physician). The results showed that the percentage of in-hospital deaths for these diagnoses were lower for IMGs than for USMGs, and for USMGs lower than USIMGs. These differences were small but statistically significant. For length of stay, USMGs were lower than either, and IMGs were lower than USIMGs. How much to make of these differences since there were other variables: longer time since medical school graduation, being rural vs. urban, and not being a cardiologist resulted in longer stays; interestingly being a cardiologist resulted in higher mortality.

One can think of all kinds of possible explanations, including unmeasured differences in severity of illness, and the authors, in their Discussion, identify several. The most obvious is that they looked at only two parameters (death and length of stay) in two diseases in hospitalized patients. The authors acknowledge this, although they point out that these are very common diagnoses. They virtually ignore that measuring care in the hospital is only one dimension of care, most of which takes place in the outpatient setting, and run the risk (although they do not explicitly say this) of implying that if a doctor can deliver quality care in the hospital, when people are sicker, they obviously can do it in the “simpler” outpatient setting. This is an egregious fallacy, most obviously (see "Uncomplicated" Primary Care?, October 8, 2009) because in the hospital doctors have far more control, while for outpatients they are at best advisors to their patients. The authors did a credible job given the difficulty of measuring what they want to measure – quality of care delivered by physicians – but the validity of the results suffer from another fallacy , that what is measured is what is easy/possible to measure, not necessarily what you are interested in (see Defining "Streetlight" Research, February 26, 2009). Still, it is good work.

The real problem is in identifying the cause(s), speculating on what they might be and then taking this to the next level, raising problems that might exist if the speculations on cause on correct. IMGs might perform well because they are “top performers” in their countries, and have often had prior post-graduate training in their own countries prior to coming to the US and entering residency; much of this is hospital-based. The authors worry about the pool of USIMGs, noting that “Part of this performance difference may be due to variability in the quality of the medical schools that U.S.-citizen international graduates attend, but to some degree, it may also reflect their ability. It will be important to monitor this possibility, since the pool of U.S. applicants to international schools is a potential source of students for U.S. medical schools as they expand.” There is very likely a difference in the training and education of US students at many off-shore medical schools, although, like other foreign schools, they vary a great deal. The danger is in identifying “ability”.

The most important health problem in the US is that some people do not have access, for financial or geographic reasons most commonly. Thus a study like the current one, which looks only at patients who have received hospital care for their diagnoses, are looking at a somewhat skewed sample, and can miss the total impact on population health that comes from including those people not counted because they got no care at all.

Students who get into US allopathic medical schools have higher grades and test scores than the ones who don’t. While many students choose osteopathic schools because of their interest in osteopathy, a large number choose them because they didn’t get into allopathic schools; on average their grades and standardized test scores are lower. Those who do not get into either school may choose offshore schools. Are they less able? Does lower, but still good, performance on standardized tests make a candidate less able? The data that exist show poor correlation between MCAT scores and grades and clinical performance. Moreover, are the students who attend Caribbean medical schools representative of those who do not get into US schools, and might get in if more students are accepted? Not entirely, since on average they come from even higher socioeconomic status than the already high US medical students.

Many outstanding students, measured in many ways, are not accepted in medical schools in the US every year (Medical Student Selection, December 14, 2008). Taking more students (by virtue of larger classes or more schools) may lower the mean MCAT score, but is not, in itself, likely to decrease the clinical performance of graduates. Indeed, if those new students are more likely, because of their backgrounds and/or values, to care for populations that are currently underserved, rural and urban, they will increase the health status of the American people.

[1]Hagopian A, et. al., “The flight of physicians from West Africa: Views of African physicians and implications for policy”, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 61, Issue 8, October 2005, Pages 1750-1760.

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