Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Primary Care is the Future of Health Care

Primary Care Progress is a non-profit organization of doctors, students, advocates, etc who have a vision for revitalizing the primary care workforce pipeline through strategic local advocacy that promotes primary care and transforms care delivery and training in academic settings.  This October 8-12, Primary Care Progress is co-sponsoring National Primary Care Week with the American Medical Student Association (AMSA).  In preparation for this they have asked some of their contributors, myself included, to answer the question "Why is primary care the future of health care?"
Here is my attempt to answer this very important question.

First, I am glad the question was not "What it the future or primary care?" as this is a much harder question to answer. The American Academy of Family Physicians just today put out their vision for the future of primary care. In their Primary Care for the 21st Century,  a personal physician coordinates with other health care providers within a Patient Centered Medical Home model of care, where quality and safety are hallmarks, and patients and their families actively participate in decision making. They envision enhanced access to care through open and same-day scheduling, expanded clinical hours, and new options for communication. This sounds like a lovely vision, but whether or not this or other models, such as Accountable Care Organizations, will save Primary Care is unclear.
However, the to the question of whether Primary Care is the future of health care is crystal clear. Our health care system and the health care of our country can not survive without Primary Care.  Here are three reasons why, in my opinion, Primary Care is the future of health care.

1. Primary Care is High Value Care. Health care spending is out of control. We are spending about 18% of the GDP on health care. We are essentially at the tipping point of health care spending in that if the percent of GDP spent on health care grows any higher, we are going to have make substantial cuts to spending in other places that are deemed essential to the functioning of our country such as social security, education and defense. It would be like if the amount you were spending on your electricity bill was starting to equal the amount you were spending on your monthly mortgage. When that happens, you can't live in that house much longer.  Yet, despite spending so much money on health care, we are not getting a great value. A large segment of our country is currently uninsured or under-insured, and health indicators which are used to compare health across countries (mortality,access,safety) show that the US underperforms compared to others. So, our current spending is crushing our economy but at the same time we are not getting a good return on our investment. Thus, the future of health care is going to have to be about value.  We need to get much more for the precious health care dollars we spent.  And there is no better health care dollar value than Primary Care. There are many studies that demonstrate a strong primary care sector is associated with lower costs in improved quality.  Countries that have a more robust primary care infrastructure have healthier citizens at lower costs. Therefore, the future of health care has to be Primary Care, because we need better value in our health care system if our country is to survive.

2. Primary Care is Critical in Reducing Waste. The Institute of Medicine just released a report that shows we waste $750 billion in health care. This is more than what we spend on defense! There are many sources of waste.

  • $210 billion on overuse and unnecessary care.
  • $130 billion in inefficiency, including mistakes and harm.
  • $190 billion in excess administrative costs.

The reasons behind all this waste are complicated, and there is no "magic bullet" solution.  Yet, one likely reason behind some of the waste is that there are"too many cooks in the kitchen." Medicine has gotten incredibly complex. Because of this sub-specialization in medicine is rampant. Instead of just going to a specialist (cardiologist for example), patients need to go to a sub-specialist (interventional cardiologist vs. an electrophysiology cardiologist). A 2007 student in the New England Journal looking at practice patterns about a decade ago noted that int the course of two years, Medicare patients saw a median of two primary care physicians and five specialists working in four different practices.  My guess is that today these numbers would likely be much worse. In addition, as more care is being delivered in the outpatient setting, there is an increase in other health care providers (home care, rehabilitation, physical therapy, etc.) involved in a single patient's care.  The more health care professionals that care for an individual patient, the more likely for errors in communication, duplication, and administration. Having a Primary Care physician as the leader of the health care team is therefore critical in terms of reducing the number of potential errors. It is not that we don't need so many players on the team.  We actually do as, advances in health care have made things more complex.  However, we need better coordination in care to prevent potential waste.  Primary Care is perfectly positioned to do this, which is why it is the future of heath care.

3. Increasing Technology and Access to Information Requires Navigation and Experience. We live in a DIY world. Cable TV shows about remodelling your own house or preparing a gourmet meal on your own are numerous.  One can find a "how to" YouTube video on virtually any subject. (I have personally used You Tube to help me cook a Thanksgiving Turkey and fix a toilet.) There are even legal web sites that allow you to create your own will or incorporate your own business.  With so much health information now available on the web, you would think that the DIY mindset would translate to health care, but it has not. Even though the latest study published in major medical journals is now on the web and a sound byte on the morning news well before I have even had a chance to read it, patients who have access to this information still want their personal physician's interpretation.  The reason for this is that, in most cases, the more we learn (research) the more complicated decisions become. For example, prostate cancer screening has been in the news lately. More evidence suggests that screening for prostate cancer may not only be unnecessary but also potentially harmful.  The current US government guidelines now recommend against this practice.  What should you do?  Though most of this data is fully accessible to the public, how to interpret the data and apply it to an individual patient requires expertise.  Not only does one need expertise to interpret and apply data, but experience in practicing medicine.  DIY projects gone wrong might lead to a burnt dinner or having to call the plumber anyway.  However, DIY health, in many cases, is a life and death decision that most people don't want to make on their own. Health care in the future promises not only more innovations in diagnostics and therapies, but also more difficulty in how to apply these tests and treatments to individual patients. Advances in technology, even with unprecedented access to this information, requires a skilled navigator and interpreter.  Because of their breath of knowledge, holistic approach and familiarity with patients they have known for some time, no other health care professional is better suited for this role than the Primary Care physician.