As a family physician and medical school faculty member, I'm naturally a big booster of primary care. America needs more generalist physicians, not fewer, and much of my professional activity involves encouraging medical students to choose family medicine, or, failing that, general pediatrics or general internal medicine. But it's an uphill battle, and I fear that it's one that can't be won without major structural changes in the way that generalist physicians are paid and rewarded for their work.
In a recent Medicine and Society piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Louise Aronson (a geriatrician) described visits with two of her doctors, a general internist and an orthopedist. The primary care physician worked in a no-frills clinic, often ran behind schedule, and devoted much of the visit and additional post-visit time to electronic documentation. The orthopedist worked in a newer, nicer office with an army of medical and physician assistants; generally ran on time; and was accompanied by a scribe who had competed most of the computer work by the end of the visit. Although there are undoubtedly a few family doctors with income parity to lower-earning orthopedists, according to Medscape's 2017 Physician Compensation Report, the average orthopedist makes $489,000 per year, while an average general internist or family physician makes around $215,000 per year. Here's what Dr. Aronson had to say about that:
It would be hard, even morally suspect, to argue that the salary disparities among medical specialties in U.S. medicine are the most pressing inequities of our health care system. Yet in many ways, they are representative of the biases underpinning health care’s often inefficient, always expensive, and sometimes nonsensical care — biases that harm patients and undermine medicine’s ability to achieve its primary mission. ...
Those structural inequalities might lead a Martian who landed in the United States today and saw our health care system to conclude that we prefer treatment to prevention, that our bones and skin matter more to us than our children or sanity, that patient benefit is not a prerequisite for approved use of treatments or procedures, that drugs always work better than exercise, that doctors treat computers not people, that death is avoidable with the right care, that hospitals are the best place to be sick, and that we value avoiding wrinkles or warts more than we do hearing, chewing, or walking.
Medical students are highly intelligent, motivated young men and women who have gotten to where they are by making rational decisions. For the past few decades, as the burden of health care documentation has grown heavier and the income gap between primary care physicians and subspecialists has widened, they have been making a rational choice to flee generalist careers in ever-larger numbers.
The cause of these salary disparities - and the reason that more and more primary care physicians are choosing to cast off the health insurance model entirely - is a task-based payment system that inherently values cutting and suturing more than thinking. I receive twice as much money from an insurer when I spend a few minutes to freeze a wart than when I spend half an hour counseling a patient with several chronic medical conditions. That's thanks to the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale, a system mandated by Congress and implemented by Medicare in 1992 in an attempt to slow the growth of spending on physician services. Every conceivable service that a physician can provide is assigned a number of relative value units (RVUs), which directly determines how much Medicare (and indirectly, private insurance companies) will pay for that service.
As new types of services are developed and older ones modified, the RVUs need to be updated periodically. Since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) chose not to develop the in-house expertise to do this itself, it farms out the updating task to the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), a 31-member advisory body convened by the American Medical Association (AMA) and nominated by various medical specialty societies. Here is where the fix is in. Only 5 of the 31 members represent primary care specialties, and over time, that lack of clout has resulted in an undervaluing of Evaluation and Management (E/M) and preventive services (the bulk of services provided by generalist physicians) compared to procedural services. Although an official AMA fact sheet pointed out that some RUC actions have increased payments for primary care, a 2013 Washington Monthly article countered that these small changes did little to alter the "special deal" that specialists receive:
In 2007, the RUC did finally vote to increase the RVUs for office visits, redistributing roughly $4 billion from different procedures to do so. But that was only a modest counter to the broader directionality of the RUC, which spends the vast majority of its time reviewing, updating—and often increasing—the RVUs for specific, technical procedures that make specialists the most money. Because of the direct relationship between what Medicare pays and what private insurers pay, that has the result of driving up health care spending in America—a dynamic that will continue as long as specialists dominate the committee.
We teach our medical students to recognize that inequities in where patients live, work and play are far more powerful in determining health outcomes than the health care we provide. A child living in a middle-class suburb has built-in structural advantages over a child living in a poor urban neighborhood or rural community, due to disparities in economic and social resources. The same goes for how physicians are paid in the U.S. Until the RUC is dramatically reformed or replaced with an impartial panel, the $3 trillion that we spend on health care annually (20 percent of which pays for physician services) will continue to produce shorter lives and poorer health compared to other similarly developed nations.