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Improving Access to Primary Care and Coordination of Complex Chronic Illness

Posted Jul 06 2009 8:06pm
Primary care physicians find that their income is flat or declining despite rises in practice costs such as office expenses and malpractice insurance. They generally are in small groups so they have little or no negotiating power with the insurers. And antitrust requirements prevent them from banding together for negotiating purposes. The insurers see their costs rising so they look for ways to keep expenses down, including payments to PCPs.
In order to maintain income levels, they resort to many techniques. One, of course, is to see more patients per day but each for less and less time. This means they spend all too little time taking a through history or physical and instead send the patient off for expensive tests and X-rays or to specialists for referral. If a patient cannot get through to their PCP and instead goes to the ER for an urgent problem, the patient will probably spend hours there and the costs will be much more. The ER physician does not know the patient, does not have access to the old record and as a result feels obliged to obtain multiple tests and images to make the proper diagnosis. This is “nuts” – the person’s PCP might have been able to solve the problem quickly, with fewer or no tests. Better, quicker care for the patient and less expense for the insurer.
PCPs also try to increase income by arranging for tests to be done at their office like stress tests. A technician arrives with the equipment and does the test for which the PCP gets a fee. Are more tests done than truly necessary? Should these tests be done only in consultation with a cardiologist and under their supervision?
Something needs to be done to alleviate these problems. Somehow the PCP needs to have an incentive not to have too many patients and to spend the time needed with each patient. This means a higher per visit reimbursement. But it needs to come with incentives. PCPs receive about 5% of the medical care dollar but can and could greatly affect the other 95%. So there need to be techniques tried to allow and encourage the PCP to give good preventive care, counsel about important issues, meet their patients at the ER, use email and the phone more [neither are currently reimbursed] and coordinate care when the patients needs to be seen by a specialist or have a test or procedure. Coordination of care is especially important for the 5-15% of patients who have complex chronic illnesses and hence need a team of providers to give care. The “team” needs to actually function as a team and it will do so only if someone is orchestrating its work. Primary care physicians need to change from the long held practice of being interveners to being orchestrators, especially for their patients with chronic diseases. This will be a culture change but it will also require monetary incentives – it will not occur otherwise.
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