Like many complicated problems in the US healthcare system, setting a goal can be easy, but achieving it can be hard. In recent years there has been a number of proposals for increasing the use of primary care clinicians to help patients with chronic diseases (like diabetes) manage their care and avoid long-term complications - and to presumably lower long-term healthcare spending. For example, the “Patient Centered Medical Home” proposal supported by a dozen organizations, (including companies and family practice and pediatrics associations), doesn’t specifically use the term “primary care,” but it gets to the same result - heightened relationships and communications between patients and a particular clinician or clinic. This .
Increasing the use of primary care clinicians is a great concept, but as has been seen in Massachusetts, increasing relationships between primary care clinicians and patients often runs into a wall when you improve insurance coverage. A recent New York Times article reported on what people here in Massachusetts have been talking about for some time: Before the start of the Massachusetts insurance expansion program there were parts of the state where it was hard to find primary care doctors taking new patients. Now that the program has expanded insurance coverage to about 340,000 more people, it has gotten really hard - particularly in Western Massachusetts. (A friend of mine moved to the most Western part of the state last summer, and almost had to go 90 minutes to Hartford, CT to find a primary care doctor.)
The options for increasing the number of primary care clinicians have both logistical and cultural challenges: Training more physicians takes many years, and as the Wall Street Journal on-line reported, until a few years ago, it had been 30 years since a new medical school granting the MD degree had opened in the US. (Several new osteopathic medical schools have opened.) Another option is retraining specialized physicians to practice primary care. This not only takes time for the retraining, but almost invariably, the potential income from practicing primary care will be less than practicing in a specialty area - which is why physicians aren’t lining up to go back into primary care.
The cultural barriers to increasing the supply of primary care clinicians involve biases that vary in different parts of the country towards osteopathic physicians ( ODs DOs) and foreign born physicians, as well as against physician assistants (PAs), and nurse practitioners (NPs). Too many patients - and particularly around places like Boston - want to see an MD that trained at an Ivy league medical school and hospital. (Having graduated from an Ivy league medical school, I can tell you that’s a credential which alone is certainly not a perfect measure of a clinician’s quality.)
Another interesting proposal has been raised in the United Kingdom, where according to the Financial Times, the UK’s National Health Services wants to start having pharmacists provide some primary care services - “pharmacists prescribing drugs and administering tests for minor ailments will free up time for family doctors.”
Of course what this all comes down to is money. The UK pharmacists welcome the proposal, as long as it is backed up with funding to pay them for their increased work. And with the battle over Medicare payments to physicians looming with the 0.5% increase in the Sustainable Growth Rate set to expire at the end of June, (and then revert to the default formula’s 10.1% reduction), it would be nice if Congress (or Medicare itself) could weigh into this policy problem and adjust how they pay clinicians to increase incentives for primary care services. However, my understanding is that Medicare still pays according to the type of service (e.g. intermediate office visit), without regard to the type of physician (e.g. primary care or specialist).
So my conclusion is that while money seems to be a driving force behind the primary care clinician shortage, there needs to be some more good thinking about how to redirect money to increase the supply and availability of primary care, as well as how to use other forms of influence to address some of the cultural and logistics problems keeping the functional supply of primary care clinicians smaller than it could be.