What is wrong with primary care in the US? Shall I count the ways? Medscape details a number of them in its recent article, citing much of the data provided in the Commonwealth Fund report “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” which I discussed in my last blog post, Our health system: Not equitable, not effective, and not even efficient. Bad business!, (March 4, 2022). The spoiler answer is: what is wrong with primary care in the US is the US health care system – how it is designed, how it is implemented, the purposes for which it is intended, and the intrinsic corruption of it. If the primary care portion of the US health care system is in particular disarray, it is because it is the (relatively) poor stepchild of a system that is all about making lots of money for corporations, particularly large health systems, insurance companies, and the vendors of drugs, devices, and equipment. The way our health system is currently structured is to feature those parts of it that generate this money, rather than those that maximize the people’s health, and under our current reimbursement system primary care is not in the game. Thus, it is unsurprising – if incredibly depressing – that our primary care sector performs poorly on the metrics assessed by Commonwealth (and reported on by Medscape), because they are looking at different markers, that is, how it meets the health needs of our people, and a robust and effective primary care capacity is critical to that. If only they would look at corporate profit they would see how well the health system, by neglecting primary care, is doing!
What is primary care and what are primary care doctors? They care for all the issues that a person has, not limited to disease, organ system, procedure, etc. They care for people with as-yet undiagnosed problems, with undifferentiated conditions. They provide care over time, and consider the physical, mental, and social conditions affecting a person. They provide care in the context of a person’s family and community. Any issue that is affecting a person’s health, or that they think is, is fair game to bring to a primary care doctor, who will try to diagnose and treat it, referring if necessary. In a coherent and effective health system, they continue to be involved with the person, even after referral or hospitalization. The characteristics of primary care, and the reasons for its benefit to people and to society are discussed most clearly by Barbara Starfield, MD, in many papers including this one. I like to think that while the relationship between primary care doctors and their patient is defined by the relationship, not the disease, or procedure involved. Family medicine, unlike even other specialties in primary care does not even limit its practice to certain age groups. But even these doctors are being relegated to practice only part of what they could; few deliver babies, most don’t do hospital work, and a large number do not care for children.
But few of us have seen such a physician lately, still less with a “full scope” practice. There are not enough family physicians or other primary care doctors in the US. There are not enough to meet the primary care needs of our people, nor to adequately perform the role that primary care should play in regard to specialists – that is, assessing a patient, determining if they can be treated by the primary care doctor, and if not referring. Otherwise subspecialists spend a lot of time caring for things that could have been done by a primary care physician. Or missing problems that are outside their specialty focus when people directly self-refer. And it is not only in the US; in parts of Canada, there are such shortages of primary care doctors (there they are virtually all family physicians) that consideration is being given to a new profession, possibly called associate physicians. In the US, much primary care is delivered by nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants. Some of them do excellent work, but they are also hampered by the same constraints as those primary care physicians face – excessive workload, assembly line production, (relative) underpayment, and a perverted reimbursement system.
To the extent that the move to
non-physicians is driven by the fact that they cost less because they earn less
money, any such effort is doomed. Nurse practitioners are increasingly being
recruited by hospitals and subspecialty physician groups where they can earn,
as do the doctors in those specialties, more money. This has overwhelmingly
already happened in the case of physician assistants. The answer to the need
for more primary care is simple: PAY MORE MONEY. Pay them as much as, or almost
as much as (70% would probably do it) other specialists. There are a lot of
students, residents, doctors, nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant trainees
who would like to do primary care, and would be good at it, but are dissuaded
because they can earn WAY more in another specialty. It is not that
complicated; virtually all reimbursement for health care in the US is based on
Medicare rates; private insurers pay some multiple of what Medicare pays. So
all that has to happen is for Medicare to completely revise its reimbursement
schedule so that primary care is paid a lot more, and interventive procedural
specialty care less. Don’t increase the size of the pie; reallocate!
Sadly, the reallocation (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has been instead to increase the privatization of Medicare, effectively enhancing corporate profits rather than quality health care. The Medicare Advantage program, while it can be good for some seniors, is being touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread by many in Congress, although it is heavily subsidized and saps funds from Traditional Medicare (TM). MedPac (not a “political action committee”, but the official group convened by Congress to make recommendations on Medicare) has raised serious concerns about the program, which essentially cherry picks healthy seniors, gives them low cost benefits, and eschews sick people while getting more money from Medicare. As I have written before (Direct Contracting Entities: Scamming Medicare and you and bad for your health!, Feb 7, 2022), a program called Direct Contracting Entities (DCEs) was developed to push even those who have chosen TM into corporate controlled profit centers. And now, after DCEs have received criticism in Congress, they haven’t been abandoned, but re-branded as REACH, essentially the same model.
The problems with primary care are not with the clinicians. The problem is with the corporate model that seeks to limit the practices of the clinicians and speed up their work so they cannot provide the benefits of primary care. The key part here is being the core person who knows about you and your family and manages directly or in conjunction with others all your care. It cannot effectively happen if you are seeing different doctors in every setting, and no one is responsible for YOU. This is much different from being the person who orders the tests or prior authorizations. Family physicians and other primary care doctors and clinicians need to have the time to spend with the patients, getting to know them, getting to know them well enough that they are trusted by their patients, who may then reveal the Pandora’s box of complicated, difficult-or-impossible to solve problems that physicians dread to hear about and corporate employers hate to pay for. You can’t get to these, not to mention begin to solve them, in 15 minute visits. Often you can’t really begin to solve them at all, since they are based in the overall circumstances of life that people find themselves in, what are often referred to as the "social determinants of health" -- their income, jobs, education, housing, food, safety, and discrimination for starters. But they need to be revealed.
This is scary to corporate types,
who want to continue to do what they do – generate big bucks by hiring
procedural specialists to care for well-insured or rich people for big