Wednesday, March 8, 2023

"I want to be a regular doctor" - making primary care the norm

Today I spent a few hours updating my "Introduction to the U.S. health care system" lecture for the first-year medical student course I directed before my 2020-21 Salt Lake City sabbatical and last year's move to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (I continue to hold a Georgetown faculty appointment as a guest lecturer for this course and a health policy elective for 4th year students and residents.) The last several slides are taken from a series of reports from the Commonwealth Fund illustrating that as U.S. health care spending has accelerated in comparison to spending in peer countries, key health outcomes, such as infant and maternal mortality and average life expectancy, have fallen farther and farther behind. I then ask the students: why are our outcomes worse than those of other countries that spend much less?

There isn't a single correct answer to this question. Culprits include high administrative costs, poor continuity of care due to lack of insurance portability, and the fact that too many people (insured and uninsured) can't access routine health care services because they are not affordable or not convenient. But the explanation that resonates with me most, as a family physician who has worked in public health, is that public health and primary care have been systematically undervalued and have insufficient resources to do their jobs well. Consider the latest evidence: a primary care scorecard developed by the Robert Graham Center shows that primary care's share of overall U.S. health care expenditures fell from 6.2% in 2013 to a paltry 4.6% in 2020.

Providing primary care is generally inexpensive, and no one is arguing that it should have a 50% or even 25% share, but achieving even the 8% average share among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries would be transformative for American medicine. Absent new investments, the primary care workforce will continue to shrink and fewer and fewer adults will be able see a primary care clinician without waiting for weeks to months. Efforts to date to improve income equity between generalists and subspecialists have been anemic; a recent study found that adjustments to the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule designed to increase the value of "cognitive work" (activities that don't involve performing procedures or using technological tools) that went into effect in 2021 only narrowed the payment gap by 2%.

Other well-intentioned efforts to prime the primary care pipeline that may yield modest gains. Several, like Texas Tech University's Family Medicine Accelerated Track, condense medical school into 3 years for students who commit early to family medicine or primary care careers. This approach eliminates one year of tuition payments and allows the medical school graduate to start earning an attending physician's salary one year sooner. A less conventional path to primary care is switching medical specialties mid-career. One of my friends, a longtime colleague and previous personal physician, began her career as a radiation oncologist and later re-trained in family medicine, where she practiced until her retirement. Doing so required that she complete a second residency, with long hours and relatively low pay, and the strain that this arrangement might put on significant others and families is not insignificant. Thus it's unlikely even if artificial intelligence eventually reduces demand for some subspecialties (e.g., pathology and radiology) that enough doctors will migrate into primary care to address future workforce shortages.

A recent episode of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) podcast featured Dr. Margot Savoy, one of the most talented family physicians I know and the Senior Vice President of Education for the American Academy of Family Physicians. Asked to describe the origins of her interest in a family medicine career, she spoke about wanting to be a "regular doctor," the health professional you saw when you needed a checkup or had an acute injury or illness. Innocent of the divisions that existed in medicine, she had to be educated that this type of "regular doctor" was called a primary care physician and about the differences between physicians who took care of kids only, adults only, and family physicians. Countless others have begun medical school considering primary care careers to be the norm before being seduced by the siren song of higher paid subspecialties with narrower bodies of knowledge to master. We need schools to continue producing subspecialists, of course, but to bring U.S. health outcomes back to par with the rest of the world, we need primary care physicians more.