Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mirror on the Wall: Commonwealth Fund report continues to show US has poor outcomes at high cost

On December 5, 2008, I commented on the data from the 2008 Commonwealth Fund report comparing health status in a number of countries (Not Getting What We Pay For). The US fared very poorly on that study. The Commonwealth Fund has just released its 2010 study “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” (Commonwealth Fund executive summary, Commonwealth Fund full report) and the news is no better. In comparing 7 industrialized countries (Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the US is #1 in health expenditures per capita at $7,290, 87% higher than second-place Canada, over twice that of the average of the other 6 ($3354) and nearly 2.5 times as much as the UK. [“Expenditures shown in $US PPP (purchasing power parity)”.].

Distressingly, but unsurprisingly to those who pay any attention to the area, including having read this blog or having seen the 2006 or 2008 Commonwealth Fund reports, this expenditure does not lead to good performance on the study’s measures of Quality Care (comprised of Effective Care, Safe Care, Coordinated Care, and Patient-Centered Care), Access (comprised of Cost-related Problems and Timeliness of Care), Efficiency, and Equity, nor on the all-important health outcome “Long, Healthy, Productive Lives”. In fact, the US ranks last -- # 7 – on that outcome indicator. And while there is not one country that leads in all the categories – Australia, for example, ranks #3 overall, but is #1 in “Long, Healthy, Productive Lives”, and is tied with the US for last in “Access”; the UK, while #6 on “Long, Healthy, Productive Lives”, is #2 overall (behind the Netherlands) despite spending the 2nd lowest amount (to New Zealand’s lowest) per capita, and ranks #1 or #2 on 6 of 10 criteria, and #7 on only Patient-centered care.

The US ranks very poorly, as it did in 2008, on Efficiency, which is interesting. We can more easily understand low rankings in Access and Equity, given our completely inequitable system of funding and access, but poor Efficiency scores reflect our poor communication, with tests often being repeated because information is not carried forward, patients being readmitted, and a variety of other characteristics. There are 8 subcategories comprising Efficiency, and the US ranks #6 on 4 and #7 on 4 (and for the whole category).

Of course, this kind of report doesn’t seem to affect policy makers too much. We already knew this, and the health reform process was in part an attempt to address it, but the current bill, PPACA, certainly doesn’t do enough. Some of the additional funding that is targeted to public health will make a difference, but it is clear from the debate in Congress that there are many who simply do not support improving the health of the American people if doing so will require cuts to the profits of the big healthcare industries who contribute large sums to them.

Some critics of the Commonwealth Fund report, such as Dr. Richard Cooper of the University of Pennsylvania, have stated that the problem in the US is not that that we have a health system which is overbuilt on the high-tech, high-cost specialty end rather than on primary care, but rather that we have more poor people; he provides evidence that, on a large regional basis, areas of the country with more poor people (e.g., the Southeast) have worse health status than those with fewer poor people (e.g., the upper Midwest). There can be no doubt that poor health status is tied to low socioeconomic status, and that the large number of poor in the US is in significant part responsible for the poor health system performance identified by the Commonwealth report and others. However, as I and many others have pointed out in the past (Public Health and Changing People's Minds, May 15,2010; Poverty, Primary Care and the Cost of Medical Care, Feb 18, 2010; Health is more than Medical Care, Jan 27, 2010), health is not simply a result of the health care, or medical care, system. The other countries measured in the Commonwealth Fund report do not have a lower percentage of poor people by chance or luck; they are, to greater or lesser extents, social democracies with policies that ensure that their people have housing, food, and education. There are poor people in those countries, but their most basic needs are ensured and this goes a very long way to decreasing their health risk. Public health, medical professionals and others in those countries are well aware – expert in – the social and socioeconomic needs of the poor in their societies, but the situation of those people, is significantly improved, to a much greater degree than in the US by a much more extensive safety net.

Poverty is bad for your health, and programs that help ameliorate the impact of poverty improve the health of populations. In addition, the presence of adequate health care services, especially primary care services, further enhances outcomes. It is not an either/or choice. Shi and colleagues demonstrated that the increased infant mortality and low birthweight rates in poor communities are virtually eliminated by a higher primary care presence.[1]

The data provided by the Commonwealth Fund should be embarrassing to every policy maker, every person of influence, and every citizen of the US. It is incontrovertible data that demonstrates yet once again that the issue is not that we aren’t spending enough money, but is the way that the money is spent: We spend it in ways that make our health status poor and our health corporations wealthy. There should be no tension between increasing primary care, increasing public health and prevention, and providing the core needs of people for food, housing, education, and work. They are all components of a society that is not only basically decent, but which is concerned about its future, the health of its people, and its workforce. What we clearly do not need, however, is to continue to spend money in the way that we are on high-tech subspecialty care that benefits few patients and often not for very long. Indeed we need to spend much less, and use the money where it will have a positive impact.

Maybe by 2012 the Commonwealth Fund will show the US making some progress. I hope so, but it is going to take some serious structural changes.

[1] Shi L, Macinko J, Starfield B, Xu J, Regan J, Politzer R and Wulu J, “Primary care, infant mortality, and low birthweight in the states of the USA”,J Epidemiol Community Health 2004;58;374-380.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A New Way of Ranking Medical Schools: Social Mission

In the June issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, Fitzhugh Mullan, Candice Chen, Stephen Petterson, Gretchen Kolsky, and Michael Spagnola, mostly from the Department of Health Policy at the George Washington University (and one from the Robert Graham Center) report on “The social mission of medical education: ranking the schools”. This study, sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation as part of the Medical Education Futures Study (MEFS) is the first report to look at this area, and should be eye-opening to those who assume that “good” medical schools are “good” at everything. Most ranking systems, most notably those of US News and World Report, are based on NIH research funding, grades and test scores of entering students, “competitiveness” (how low a percent of applicants they accept) and reputation. Obviously, the grades and test scores are related to competitiveness and reputation is a tautology, because it reinforces itself. It should depend upon what you are looking at, of course. I addressed this in “Rankings of Medical Schools: Do they tell us anything?” (September 25, 2009), and observed that what they tell us is who does well in what is measured, and that this should only be important to us if those are the outcomes we value.

Mullan and colleagues evaluate different outcomes, the degree to which medical schools meet their “social mission”, or to put it another way, the degree to which they produce the physicians that will take care of the American people. More to the point, since it can be argued that most medical school graduates take care of some American people, physicians who will take care of those people who need it the most because they don’t already have doctors. This means largely those in poor communities, rural communities, and minority communities (and especially those communities that are two or three of these). They look at 3 characteristics of graduates: 1) what percent of their graduates are practicing primary care, 2) what percent of their graduates are practicing in designated Health Professions Shortage Areas (HPSAs), and 3) what percent of their graduates are members of underrepresented minority groups? This is pretty straightforward, and they take two other steps to try and ensure that this is an accurate reflection.

The first is that they examined students, in the graduating classes of 1999-2001, 8 years after graduation. As I have pointed out several times (Primary Care and Residency Expansion, January 7, 2010; Funding Graduate Medical Education, May 25, 2009), the “credit” medical schools claim for students entering “primary care” residencies includes all those entering internal medicine programs, the vast majority of whom will enter subspecialty training. By looking at students 8 years after graduation, after they have completed residency and subspecialty fellowship training, they are able to get a much more accurate picture of who is actually doing primary care. Similarly, it also means that those who are practicing in HPSAs have been doing it for several years. Overall, public schools did much better than private schools, and Southern, Midwestern, and Western schools better than Northeastern schools.

In terms of underrepresented minority students, the percent of graduates, for public medical schools, is compared to the percent of the underrepresented minority population for the state, while for private schools, which are presumed to draw from a more national base, it is the national percentage (26.5%). Thus, for example, the University of Iowa has a positive ratio with 8.1% minority students in a state that is only 6% minority, while the Universidad de Puerto Rico en Ponce has a negative ratio because, even though their students are 82.5% underrepresented minorities, their “state” is 98.8%. The underrepresented minority scores for the 3 historically black medical schools, Morehouse, Meharry and Howard are so high, compared to the national average (as they are all private) that they are easily the top 3 in the overall social mission score. This tends to wash out the significant differences between them on the other two areas. For example Meharry does well in producing primary care physicians (49.3%, or 2 standard deviations [SD] above the national mean) compared to Howard, which at 36.5% is only 0.19 SD above the mean; Howard, however, does better at placing students in HPSAs (33.7%, +0.78 SD) than Meharry (28.1%, +0.12 SD). Ponce, despite its negative underrepresented minority score and also a negative primary care physician score (-0.31 SD*), ranks #9 nationally in total social mission score. This is based on its high rate of physicians practicing in HPSAs (43.8%, +1.94 SD), because so much of its service area are HPSAs.

The data can be analyzed in a number of ways. Osteopathic schools have a much higher rate of producing primary care doctors, but none were in the top 20 because their percent of underrepresented minorities are low. Adding only the two dimensions of primary care and HPSA practice shows only 7 schools with a standardized score above 3, all of them public allopathic schools and 4 of them “community based” medical schools with a specific commitment to primary care (as is Wright State, the #4 ranked school in overall social mission). A few top NIH research schools (4, to be exact) “defied the trend” and were in, at least, the top quartile of social mission scores, again all public schools. Other than the historically black schools, private schools were nowhere to be seen.

The schools that traditionally do well on rankings such as that of US News tended to be at the bottom of this scale. They are overwhelmingly private (14 of the bottom 20) and generally highly NIH-funded. Comments from the leaders of those schools, unsurprisingly, tended to disparage the study and its methods, and to assert, essentially, that “our school does well on all of its missions.” If those missions include the social missions of meeting the health needs of the American people by producing minority and primary care physicians, and those that practice in underserved areas, they clearly do not. And, while some are better than others, no medical schools are doing very well at enrolling underrepresented minorities (except the historically black schools and the Puerto Rican schools) or at producing physicians for rural areas at anything approaching the percent of Americans who live in those areas (Primary Care and Rural Areas, April 28, 2010).

This is not to say that other missions of medical schools, such as biomedical research, cutting-edge medical care, and training of the future generations of academics, including the MD/PhDs who will be laboratory-based researchers, are unimportant. Lawrence G. Smith and Veronica M. Catanese emphasize this point in their accompanying editorial, “The Many Missions of Medical Schools”, as well as noting various possible ways in which the production of physicians who fulfill a social mission might have been underestimated by Mullan, et. al. They also note, as I have above, that different schools do better or worse on the different social mission measures, but also that success in the social mission needs to be pursued, as success in all other missions: “The lack of concordance among the 3 elements of Mullan and colleagues' social mission score suggests that medical schools that accept this mission—as they must—cannot define social mission narrowly. They must have multipronged initiatives and not simply 'wait' for programs aimed at recruiting and retaining underrepresented minority students, or at specifically incentivizing primary care, to bear fruit.”

The key point is that the data produced by Mullan and colleagues that shows that schools which are historically highly ranked do relatively poorly in social mission is not due to a flawed methodology. “The level of NIH support that medical schools received was inversely associated with their output of primary care physicians and physicians practicing in underserved areas.” It is because these schools do not emphasize the characteristics that they are measuring, combined into the concept of social mission, nearly as highly as they do their other missions and do not put as much energy, time, or especially money into them. Mullan et. al. conclude that “Some schools may choose other priorities, but in this time of national reconsideration, it seems appropriate that all schools examine their educational commitment regarding the service needs of their states and the nation. A diverse, equitably distributed physician workforce with a strong primary care base is essential to achieve quality health care that is accessible and affordable, regardless of the nature of any future health care reform.”

The authors note that “Medical schools, however, are the only institutions in our society that can produce physicians”. It is up to the people of the US, particularly the communities in need and the policy makers who represent them, to decide how high a priority producing physicians who will meet our social need by practicing in specialties, in areas, and with populations who do not have doctors, and how to use the public coffers to achieve this. The time is long past, however, for these characteristics not to be measured. We can no longer, in self-indulgence or ignorance, assume that those schools that are the “best” on US News rankings because of NIH research funding, selectivity, and “reputation” are the best in every area. In producing the doctors most needed by this nation’s most needy, they are, with few exceptions, mostly the worst.

*Like the other Puerto Rican Schools, Ponce has a low production of family physicians, ranking 117 out of 128 medical schools for producing FPs in the 10 years from 1999-2008, as reported by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) annual analysis.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Oil Slicks and Abortion: Who do we regulate?

As the nation grapples with the “Deep Horizon” blowout, which will be uncontrovertibly a complete disaster for the Gulf of Mexico and life within it as well as for the people who live along the Gulf Coast and their way of life, a number of things have become apparent. Some of them are detailed in “Don’t Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even”, the Sunday, June 6, 2010 New York Times column by Frank Rich. Rich, whose primary theme is the response of the President, details the incredible panoply of disasters and near-disasters caused by British Petroleum, and its apparently complete disregard for the few regulations it has been subject to. He is clearly amazed and disappointed that the President continues to place faith in experts, even those at BP, who had an

“…atrocious record prior to this catastrophe. In the last three years, according to the Center for Public Integrity, BP accounted for ‘97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors’ — including 760 citations for ‘egregious, willful’ violations (compared with only eight at the two oil companies that tied for second place). Hayward’s [BP CEO Tony Hayward] predecessor at BP, ousted in a sex-and-blackmail scandal in 2007, had placed cost-cutting (and ever more obscene profits) over safety, culminating in the BP Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 and injured 170 in 2005. Last October The Times uncovered documents revealing that BP had still failed to address hundreds of safety hazards at that refinery in the four years after the explosion, prompting the largest fine in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (The fine, $87 million, was no doubt regarded as petty cash by a company whose profit reached nearly $17 billion last year.)”

Just to restate: BP had 97% of all flagrant violations. Of “egregious, willful” violations – that is, “we ignored the rules on purpose, not by accident” – they had 760, while oil company offender #2 had 8. Clearly then, in an industry known for arrogance, and for preferring to wield political influence (see: George Bush, Dick Cheney) to actually being careful with our world and our environment, BP stands out. It, corporately (and, probably, individually in its leadership ranks) is the true slick scum, from which the oil slick scum washing up on Louisiana owes its paternity.

So let’s talk about Louisiana. It has a long, well-deserved, reputation as one of our more politically corrupt states. It is the home, most famously until this blowout, of the city of New Orleans that, you may remember, was the victim of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a disaster that the city has nowhere near recovered from despite its absence from the front pages. The incompetence involved in not maintaining the levees that protected the city, especially its poorest parts, and not planning for what was obviously an event that was going to happen, was only eclipsed by the incompetence of the governmental response. The federal government’s terrible response (see: George Bush, Dick Cheney, FEMA director Michael “Brownie” Brown) has gotten most of the criticism, deservedly so, but the response of the state of Louisiana, under Governor Kathleen Blanco, was at least as incompetent – and it was their home state. Of course, in many ways, government in Louisiana has had some of the characteristics of that in nearby places such as Haiti – close collaboration with the wealthy minority that exploit its resources for their personal gain, and, of course, that of the politicians that they pay. It has frequently led to enough anger that populist, if scarcely reformist, politicians have been elected by regular people angry at this exploitation. They too, we well know, have been bought (see: Long, any first name).

The lack of regulation by the state government, in fact its coziness with, the oil industry has been a characteristic of Louisiana. The benefits are jobs for its citizens who work in the oil and gas industry that is so important to the state’s economy (and of course to the politicians who receive “contributions” if not outright graft). The risks are to those same workers, who, like their brethren in the coal industry, are periodically subjected to accidents leading to maiming and death, or, if they are lucky enough not to be sudden death victims, to long term health consequences from their occupational exposures. These industries need to be tightly regulated and controlled, and they can be. As in the case of Haiti (in the 19th century), and much of Africa, and other places rich in natural resources, the large corporations need them. The natural resources – oil and gas, or coal, or diamonds and goal, or tungsten and bauxite and copper – exist where they exist and the corporations need them, and despite their bluster will make the investment in safety, for the people and the environment, if they are absolutely forced to, not just by law but by enforcement.

And then there are oil rig blowouts polluting the waters of the Gulf and the marshes, as the strip mining in Appalachia scars the land there. And then there is Deepwater Horizon, an ecological disaster that may – likely will -- exceed the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, a result of the greed of a few and the lack of regulation by the state and federal government. Or, at least, enforcement of regulations.

Make no mistake, Louisiana is capable of passing laws with strict regulations and enforcing them. Take, for example, abortion. Striving to compete with the many other states that have wanted to take the lead in controlling women’s reproduction (see In Ultrasound, Abortion Fight Has New Front by Kevin Sack, NY Times May 27, 2010), Louisiana has passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Many of these laws are clearly directed at harassing abortion providers so that they go out of business, and mainly have the effect of harassing the women who are seeking abortions. Recent laws include the requirement that a woman who wants an abortion see an ultrasound of the fetus within 2 hours of the procedure, having the images on the screen described to her, and be given a copy of the ultrasound in an envelope with sonogram results written on the front. There is no exception for fetal demise, rape, incest or anything.

Louisiana’s governor (Bobby Jindahl) and its anti-choice legislature may take pleasure in their “F” rating by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL); the negative impact is suffered by the actual women who are already struggling with having decided that an abortion is the right thing for them, in their lives, at that time, and don’t need this additional harassment from their government. It would be wonderful if the Louisiana governor and legislator could take the same pride in the rigorous regulation of the oil industry in their state, protecting their people and their livelihoods and the environment from destruction with anything approaching the same vigor.

But they can’t take such pride. Because they don’t do it. If they did, we’d be living in a much better world.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Reinventing Primary Care: Themes and Challenges

My May 27 entry, Universal Coverage and Primary Care: The US needs both, focused on one article from the May 2010 issue of the journal Health Affairs. That article, by Barbara Starfield, (“Reinventing Primary Care: Lessons from Canada for the United States”) was just one of 65 articles in this issue that addressed the topic of “reinventing primary care”. The articles cover the gamut of the history of primary care, the problem of undersupply of primary care providers, proposals for increasing the number of primary care providers, analyses (such as Dr. Starfield’s) of the health systems of other nations’ that are based on primary care, proposals for how the organization and structure of primary care practices need to be changed, and case studies of models of practices and demonstration projects that have implicated innovative approaches to primary care delivery. Many of these practice changes are contained under the rubric of the Primary Care Medical Home (PCMH), which is also the abbreviation for the related Patient Centered Medical Home. Indeed, the Patient Centered Primary Care Collaborative (PCPCC), a coalition of major employers, insurers, providers, pharmaceutical and device makers, and consumers, uses both “PC”s in its name (one hesitates to say that it is thus very PC!)

One of the articles is in fact “The multistakeholder movement for primary care renewal and reform”, by Paul Grundy, et. al., specifically addresses and discusses this collaborative, as well as its proposals for change in the entire structure of the primary care delivery system. Grundy, who is vice-president for global health reform of IBM, is president of the collaborative. It has brought together these various stakeholders in recognition not only of the overwhelming data that shows systems that are built upon primary care are more efficient, more cost-effective, and lead to better health outcomes, but on the actual experience of IBM and other multinational companies. These companies find that their health costs, and the health (and thus lack of time off for illness) of their workers is dramatically lower in countries in which the health system is built upon a primary care base. It is actively involved in educating, advocating, and demonstrating the importance of developing such a base in the US.

Many of the other articles in the journal address changes that need to happen to allow the small (and, as I have pointed out, likely to stay too small even if there is a significant increase in production from our current paltry 16%) number of primary care providers to care for larger panels of patients, while maintaining or increasing quality of care, patient satisfaction, and efficiency. Two of these are co-written by Thomas Bodenheimer, MD, ‘Primary Care: Current Problems And Proposed Solutions”, by Bodenheimer and H.H. Pham, and “Transforming Primary Care: From Past Practice To The Practice Of The Future”, by D. Margolius and Bodenheimer. Another perspective, more from that of the individual physician than the overall health system, is Lawrence P. Casalino’s contribution, “A Martian’s Prescription For Primary Care: Overhaul The Physician’s Workday”

What is striking about these articles in the similarity of their recommendations. The recurrent themes include the need for multi-disciplinary teams of health professionals who all play roles in caring for patients, and panels of patients. This goes beyond the simple “nurses doing callbacks” to patients before, or instead of, the physician. It means that nurses provide the care that they can, that pharmacists and psychologists and social workers all are part of the team, communicating with each other but often operating independently. Group visits are another theme; often people with the same (or, in fact, different) conditions can benefit from being seen in a group. This can be for a more formal didactic session of patient education about their condition by a nurse, or pharmacist, or health educator, or physical therapist, or physician, or medications, or other treatments, often combined with a great deal of person-to-person interaction. There is more to this than efficiency; people actually benefit from the fact of being in a group, of sharing experiences, and ideas, and successes and failures.

Another important and recurrent theme is that of physician-patient interactions that do not involve face-to-face contact, but rather phone calls or emails. Again, this is not just a matter of efficiency for the physician; patients often have concerns that can be successfully addressed by one of these other methods that do not involve them having to take off work, drive a long distance, look for parking, and wait in the waiting room. A physician can be far more effective, and interact with a much larger number of people, if an afternoon consists of seeing a few in person, a much larger number by telephone, and an even larger number by email; a number of products exist that provide not only secure email communication, but provide a structure for the patient to supply information that will help the doctor (or NP, or nurse, or whoever on the team is most appropriate) provide the greatest help.

In his article, Casalino lists five reasons why a physician should see someone in person:
“(1) for a first visit; (2) when it may be necessary to engage in some physical maneuver for diagnostic purposes—such as palpating the abdomen, listening to the heart, or performing a skin biopsy; (3) for specific therapeutic purposes, such as injecting a joint; (4) when the patient has problems for which lengthy discussion would be helpful; (5) when for psychological or emotional reasons it seems better to see the patient face-to-face; and (6) when face-to-face visits are necessary to build trust.”
These are very good, but I would simplify it even more: the physician should see the patient face-to-face when either the patient or the physician think it is important.

The effectiveness and satisfaction from increased phone calls substituting for visits was clear in the late 1990s when capitation, rather than fee-for-service, was a dominant mode of payment (of course, at that time the internet was not yet developed enough for most people to be using email). To reprise, and to improve upon that process will, obviously, require a reimbursement system that does not pay only for face-to-face physician visits. This is another common theme to many of the articles in this issue. It is also not happening in most places. It is, however, a sine qua non for such practice reorganization. And increasing the primary care supply.

Which of these themes is the most important: increasing the supply of primary care physicians, reorganizing practices to become true Patient Centered Medical homes, utilizing all of the strategies above and more, or restructuring the way health care is paid for? They are all important, all related, and all dependent upon each other for success. What is not addressed in most of the articles in this issue of Health Affairs, however, is arguably the most important: ensuring health coverage for everyone. The work of the Patient Centered Primary Care Collaborative may go a long way to having a more rational delivery system for those with access, but as long as the same old hands, in particular the insurance companies but also the drug and device makers, are part of the decision-making process, they are unlikely to come up with a plan that truly covers everyone, single-payer, “Medicare for All”, or any other rational system. And without that, all the primary care reform is not going to really work. It is not only a moral issue (although that should be enough!); it is that the cost, in terms of work hours lost, unnecessary suffering, direct dollars spent on diseases that have advanced too far because people have delayed care, and ultimately worse outcomes, is unsupportable and unsustainable.

We’ve passed PPACA. Now it’s time for real health reform.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Who will care for the underserved? The role of off-shore medical schools

I have written in several previous posts (most recently Universal Coverage and Primary Care: The US needs both, May 27, 2010) about the challenges facing American medicine, particularly regarding specialty choice (=not primary care, not rural, not underserved) of US allopathic graduates, and the problems this has already created in providing health care to the American people, which is only likely to worsen as this trend continues. I have noted that, in the production of physicians as in any other process, the outcome results from variables in inputs (who is admitted in this case), the process itself (in education, the curriculum, both formal and informal), and output variables (in the case of physicians, what the practice environment is: reimbursement, work load, quality of life, respect and regard within the profession and community). I have argued that, while output variables may be the most important in terms of specialty choice and practice location, it is the one over which medical educators have the least control. While the curriculum, the process through which we educate medical students, is critical (see Are we training physicians to be empathic? Apparently not., Sept 12, 2009), it is likely that the characteristics of the students selected is most important in determining practice location, particularly for rural areas, but also for urban underserved settings (Medical Student Selection, Dec 14, 2008). Selecting students who grew up in the suburbs of major cities (what Robert Bowman, MD, who has done much research in this area, calls “major medical centers”) in homes with high socioeconomic status and excellent high school and college educations (which is what is mainly done) will result in students with excellent test performance and is likely to produce skilled physicians, but not ones likely to practice in rural or underserved areas.

Students from rural areas, from underserved communities, from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and from underrepresented minority groups are much more likely to serve these populations, as are students who are older at the time of matriculation. But their lower grades and MCATs, may make them less likely to be accepted, and to have difficulty with the pre-clinical medical curriculum. Students, even from privileged backgrounds, whose prior life history includes significant service are also more likely to work in urban underserved settings; less so (although more than their colleagues without these characteristics) in rural areas. But what about schools of other types or medical schools not in the US?

In a conversation with US Senator Sam Brownback on a visit to his office last year, members of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians (KAFP) noted the challenges in getting KUMC graduates to work in rural areas. In an off-the-cuff response (I don’t mean to suggest that this was thought-out or his real position; I use the statement as a basis for comment) he suggested that we then just start a medical school at Kansas State University that would train rural primary care doctors. This type of response to a system that is not having the impact that policy makers wish for is common – create a new school, or focus on another different type of school (e.g., osteopathic), or another profession (nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants). But, of course, if they take the same sorts of students and offer them the same range of career opportunities, why would one expect different outcomes? Osteopathic graduates, while still entering family medicine and primary care at higher rates than allopathic, are increasingly becoming specialists. NPs, and especially PAs, are increasingly joining specialty physician practices and remaining in urban areas with high income potential rather than high need. Why would they not? Would you, or your children?

Because there are far more residency training positions than there are US graduates, many of these positions are filled with international medical graduates. A special group of these are “US IMGs”, Americans who, unable to be admitted to US medical schools, attend those outside the country. In the Caribbean, there are many schools, for-profit, set up for precisely this purpose. I recently had the opportunity to give the “White Coat Ceremony” talk to the class entering the largest of these: Ross University School of Medicine ( on the island of Dominica. Ross, in existence for over 30 years and now owned by DeVry, the largest for-profit educational company in the US, has a “business model” that enrolls 3 classes per year paying tuition much the same as a private US private school or an out-of-state student at a US public medical school. After the first two years, students do clinical clerkships in 70 hospitals in the US that are affiliated with the school – and paid by them. The student body is ethnically very diverse, with over half the members of the class I spoke to born outside the US (although 95% are US citizens or permanent residents; the rest mostly Canadian), but not including a large percentage of students from traditional underrepresented minority groups, and certainly not many from poor families. Ross graduate disproportionately enter primary care specialties, but this is almost certainly because primary care is less competitive than many subspecialties, and the fact that they didn’t train at US schools puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the selection process. Nonetheless, there are several positive things to be said about the Ross experience. First, Ross has a single mission – medical education. The considerable funds it generates are not required to support a large research or clinical enterprise, but can be directed to that mission. Second, it takes students who, because of their grades, wouldn’t – didn’t – get into US medical schools, and gives them a chance to succeed. If there is a high failure rate as a result, there are also unquestionably outstanding doctors produced who would not have otherwise existed. They are able, because of their business model, to take a “chance” on these students – and if they work hard, they can be successful.

While there a very many Caribbean medical schools, of different ages, quality, and size, operated more-or-less on the Ross model, a quite different model exists on another island – Cuba. Whatever its failures, one of the great successes in Cuba since the revolution of 1959 has been the expansion of medical care to the entire citizenry of the nation, and exportation of trained physicians, both Cuban nationals (they are even on Ross’ home island of Dominica) and those from other countries educated in Cuba. The Latin American Medical School (Escuela Latino-Americana de Medicina – ELAM), which educates students from other Latin American countries, began to take students from the US a number of years ago. Unlike those attending Ross and other costly schools, US students at ELAM are virtually all from low socioeconomic backgrounds and mainly from underrepresented minority groups. Tuition is free and living expenses are paid, but there are prices for the students to pay. Admission requires a bachelor’s degree, but students are still required to spend the entire 6 years of medical school that is the usual for countries outside the US and Canada, or 7 if they need to learn Spanish first. They live in minimal dormitories, have very limited access to the internet (1-2 hours per week), and work very hard. They receive a medical education that particularly emphasizes public health, community medicine, and prevention. They promise to complete their training and enter practice in service to the communities from which they come, but it is a promise – obviously the Cubans have no way to enforce this. They receive no training in the US prior to graduation unless they are able to arrange summer observerships on their own, and are not particularly prepared for the “National Board” exams, the USMLE, that are required for US licensure and admission to US residencies. MEDICC (Medical Education in Cooperation with Cuba) , a US group that exists to support US students at ELAM and its graduates, tries to find them mentors who will help orient them to the health system in their own country, the US, teach them about applying to US residencies, and offer guidance in the study for USMLE. The first US graduates of ELAM have entered a few US residencies this year; I have met one, who is phenomenal. Other US medical educators are working with ELAM graduates and offering both advice and opportunities for volunteer training.

The US students at ELAM are the “right students”. They come from underserved backgrounds, are committed to their communities, and are willing to work very hard (perhaps ten years between bachelor’s degree and entering a residency). The question, of course, is not “how can they go to that Communist country?” but rather why are we allowing Cuba to pick up the role that our own medical education system fails to fulfill. Indeed, it would be particularly for those who oppose Cuba and socialism to develop such programs in our own country.

Senator Brownback, if we are going to start a new school in Kansas, let’s model much of it on ELAM. Let’s make it free, and recruit students from underserved communities and underrepresented minority groups, and low socioeconomic backgrounds, and teach them public health and prevention and primary care, and send them out to serve their communities of origin. In the meantime, let us at least have a “sliding scale” loan repayment program where the percent of your loan your repay is tied to your post-residency income, as well as your practice location and specialty choice.

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