At the Family Medicine Midwest conference held recently in Milwaukee, the first day’s plenary speaker was Richard Roberts, MD, from the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Roberts has a distinguished history as a health services researcher and leader in Family Medicine, having been president of both the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and the World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA). He has extensive experience in international health, and is knowledgeable about the health systems – and their results – in countries around the world. And he continues to practice family medicine.
setting in which health care takes place), done first by Kerr White in 1961 and replicated by the Graham Center of the AAFP in 2003 with remarkably similar results. In a community of 1000 adults, in any month about 800 have a health problem or injury, 217seek attention from a doctor, 8 are hospitalized, 5 see subspecialists, and 1 or less is admitted to an academic medical center teaching hospital, which, of course, is where we train most medical students and residents, and where they get a skewed view of the prevalence of disease. They begin to see unusual or even rare things as common, and develop habits of ordering tests that are perhaps appropriate in that setting, but dramatic overuse in ambulatory practice.
In 2005, there were 34 million hospital admissions in the US, but almost 1 billion office visits. Of those, about 53% were to primary care physicians. While much is made of the increase in emergency department usage, from 1995 to 2005 ER visits were up 8% while primary care visits increased 22%. As Roberts notes (medical students should cover their ears!) primary care doctors comprise about ¼ of the physician workforce but see more than ½ of all patient visits and earn about ½ the income of subspecialists (and this is average; a much smaller fraction of the income of the most highly paid subspecialists).
Internationally, the same trends are noted. Countries with a higher “primary care score” (which largely measures the percent of the medical workforce in primary care) had lower rates of premature deaths than those with low PC scores in 1970, and over the last 4 decades, while the rate has gone down in both groups, the gap between them has widened. In an unintended “natural experiment”, the Asian economic boom of the early 1990s allowed Indonesia to greatly increased health spending, mostly in primary care; that nation saw a 70% improvement in health status in all provinces. With the collapse of that “bubble” in the late 1990s, spending on primary care went down, but not on hospital care in the big cities. This was a result not of Indonesian government decisions, but rather of the international community through organizations such as the World Bank saying “your economy is worse, but you need health care – here’s money … to build hospitals”. But health status dropped in most provinces. Not the best use of resources!
In the 1990s, Shi studied socioeconomic, environmental, and health system characteristics of US states and their relationship to health status (mortality, lifespan, deaths due to heart disease and cancer, neonatal mortality, and low birthweight). Access to primary care was the strongest predictor of greater lifespan and was second (to living in an urban area) for lower mortality rates, even ahead of education. Number of specialists and number of hospital beds were far down the list – indeed they were negative predictors! None of the changes in the health system since that time are likely to change this; indeed, the increase in specialists, technology, and hospitalizations have probably increased it.
What is it about primary care? Why does it make so much difference. Starfield’s work identified the fact that nations and regions with high levels of primary care have greater self-reported health status and fewer health disparities, and that the presence of primary care tends to mitigate the negative impact of income inequality. This group also demonstrated that an increase of primary care physicians of 1 per 10,000 (20%) physicians decreases mortality by 40 per 100,000 (5% fewer deaths), and 1 per 10,000 (33%) more family physicians decreases mortality by 70 per 100,000 (9% fewer deaths), while an increase in specialists of 1 per 10,000 (8%) increases mortality by 16 per 100,000 (2% more deaths).  Dr. Roberts notes 4 features of systems with higher primary care to specialist ratios that might affect this: 1) when there are too many specialist and not enough primary care doctors, specialists may try to manage conditions outside their specialty in which they are not knowledgeable; 2) prevention and early detection save more lives and extend life more than intervention late in the disease process; 3) there is excessive utilization of procedures when there are too many specialists (supply drives demand rather than vice versa) and these often have risks; 4) the more “handoffs” there are between doctors caring for a patient, the more that care begins to resemble an elementary school game of “telephone”, where the final message heard is very different from that which began the communication.
The fact that family physicians specifically seem to improve population health status more than primary care physicians taken as a whole is apparent in the data, but the reason has not yet been identified by studies. Dr. Roberts postulates that it has to do with caring for multiple family members, and using that information to improve their care, such as when a mother’s issues are addressed at a visit ostensibly limited to caring for her child. Primary care (and possibly especially family physicians) acts to achieve all aspects of what has been identified as the “Triple Aim” of health care: greater access, lower cost and higher quality.
Primary care doctors, and especially family physicians, are doctors of “first and last resort”. They care for pregnant women and deliver their babies and care for their children as well as the other adults in the family. They tend to the “grandparents”, older adults, and manage the often complex interplay of multiple chronic diseases. They provide acute care and preventive care and are aware of the individual’s beliefs and preferences and those of the family, and the dynamics that exist between them. They care for people at the end of life, right through the end, not just until “there is no more to do”, and they remain there for the survivors.
The US could do a lot better. We need a health system that is more grounded in primary care, and we need a health system that provides access to everyone. What we don’t need is folks in Congress are committed so committed to preventing that access they will shut the government down! Another conference speaker, Dr. Cynthia Haq of the University of Wisconsin, quoted the Ethiopian Minister of Health, with whom she had recently met. “Only in the United States,” the Minister said, “could there be discussion about whether access to health care was a human right or not.”
Oh, my. He’s right. I sure wish he were not.
 White KL, Williams TF, Greenberg BG. The ecology of medical care. N Engl J Med 1961;265:885–892.
 Green, LA et al., “The ecology of medical care revisited”, N Engl J Med 2001; 344:2021-2025June 28, 2001DOI: 10.1056/NEJM200106283442611
 Shi L, "Primary care, specialty care, and life change", Intl J of Health Service,1994; 24(3):431-58
 Starfield BA, Shi L, Macinko J, “Contribution of Primary Care to Health Systems and Health”, Milbank Quarterly Sept2005; 83(3):457-502. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2005.00409.x
 Shi L, et al., “The Relationship Between Primary Care, Income Inequality, and Mortality in US States, 1980–1995”, J Am Bd Fam Med, 1Sep2003;16(5)412-422. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.16.5.412.
Dear Dr. Freeman,
Reading this blog I was reminded of a comment by the famous community organizer Steve Max: "You don't win because you are right."
You have cogently set forth all the reasons while primary care should be supported. Numerous politicians - even IBM! - note that primary care is the backbone of the health care system. But the reality is quite different.
We do not need more evidence. We need a political strategy that looks at the reasons why primary care is not supported and then figures out a way to address the origins of the problem. The lack of such a strategy represents a major failure on the part of family medicine.
Here are two specific suggestions on what needs to be done:
1) The RUC needs to go. There are many reasons for this (as you have pointed out in previous posts). The solution is simple: Family Medicine - along with Pediatrics - needs to walk out of the RUC.
2) The government should stop giving no-strings-attached GME money. GME monies should be spent based on physician need and not hospital profit line. This would benefit many groups in the society and disadvantage only a few. Surely, we could figure out a political strategy to help make this happen.
Best, Matt Anderson, MD
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