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Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 10/25/21

October 25, 2021 Dr. Jayne 1 Comment

I always enjoy reading other physicians’ blogs and “A Country Doctor Writes” doesn’t disappoint. When your tagline is “notes from a doctor with a laptop, a house call bag, and a fountain pen,” how can you go wrong? A recent piece titled “American Primary Care is a Big Waste of Time (When…)” had some really good points. He mentions that using scribes in medicine is “almost medieval” and draws a parallel to how books were copied prior to the invention of the printing press. Where other fields are focused on scaling and automation, US primary care is still “doing things one patient at a time.”

I don’t disagree, but I think it’s important to note that there are a number of cultural factors behind how we do things in addition to the technical ones. It’s still difficult at times to get patients to participate in group visits or group classes regarding their health issues, and the pandemic didn’t make that any easier. Our consumer-driven culture and the need to obsessively groom our patient satisfaction scores don’t always support our efforts to streamline care or create consistent workflow processes. Team-based care can certainly help, although some organizations are better at it than others. One of the first things he notes as a time saver is something I’ve been begging physicians to do for years – creating standing orders for health maintenance or preventive measures and letting appropriate support staff enable those activities.

His next point is something I hadn’t thought about in such a clear context, that physicians are “forced to act as if we only see our patients once – ever, instead of over several visits year in and year out. We can’t see you quickly for your sore throat or UTI, because a visit without the required screenings hurts our quality ratings.” This became much more of an issue with the transition to EHR and the Meaningful Use incentive programs, where physicians were tasked with capturing a tremendous amount of information when the patient presented for their first visit of the calendar year. He points to asynchronous interactions via email, events, and other modalities as potential solutions, although he notes that some physicians are still reluctant to embrace these methods because they’re still paid primarily based on direct patient interactions.

I’d like to see greater flexibility by healthcare organizations to accept data flowing into their EHR from other sources. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I still work with health systems that don’t recognize other hospitals’ data for the purpose of satisfying gaps in care, even though it’s available on the system and visible to the patient and providers. EHR technology now supports this, but for some reason, administrators have chosen not to turn it on at one of my sites of care, so there’s always some confusion at the beginning of a visit.

He notes that unless physicians in the traditional US primary care model can adapt, patients will move away to concierge medicine, direct primary care, retail clinics, and other care environments. Some practices are definitely better than others at adapting to new models of care and harnessing the payments available when they participate. Some of my colleagues have refined their practices to the point where their quality scores are so outstanding that they can command additional bonuses beyond what anyone else in the region receives because they’ve embraced new models. Others are electing to retire early, and some are just reacting to changes in the marketplace rather than trying to proactively evolve their practices.

This theme isn’t limited to the musings of a country doctor, however. The Harvard Business Review dove into the topic recently with an eye-catching headline that “The US Health Care System Isn’t Built for Primary Care.” Citing this spring’s report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, they note the conclusion that “primary care is the only medical discipline where a greater supply produces improvements in population health, longer lives, and greater health equity.” The author notes that “current efforts to wring ‘value’ from primary care by focusing on diagnostic algorithms and quality metrics reveal fundamental misunderstandings of primary care’s purpose. The attempts to apply processes and technology designed for subspecialty care to the delivery of primary care have proven insufficient to support the complex work of the primary care team.”

The article poses that unlike other specialties, “the heart of primary care’s success remains a unique relationship between physicians and patients built on trust.” Although I’d like to agree, and a decade ago I might have, there has been a substantial erosion of that trust over the last two decades. When patients had to start changing primary care physicians when their employers went with cheaper insurance plans each year, those relationships became less valuable. The evolution from patient to consumer and customer further eroded the relationship, and new generations who never experienced the ”old-time family doctor” visit didn’t understand its value as they prioritized convenience and speed given their busy lives. The pandemic has put that shifting trust into focus, where some patients are more likely to believe things they read on social media than to trust the advice of their primary care physician.

The section headed by “Primary Care Doctors Are Not Subspecialists” was particularly thought-provoking. Where procedural subspecialists are more likely to be served by checklists, templates, and process-driven approaches, primary care has to be more dynamic. Often the outcomes of primary care are achieved over a period of years rather than months, which makes it more challenging to understand the cost/benefit equation. Money that is spent by commercial insurers during a patient’s employed years might not lead to savings until disease is prevented or caught early, at a time when the patient might be covered by another payer or even by Medicare.

The author lists three places to focus on reinventing primary care, and they’re all things that plenty of others have been saying.

First, we need to reform the payment model since the US spends 50% less on primary care than any other developed nation. Future payment models must support multidisciplinary primary care, and according to the author, “should include predictable cash flow up front, in recognition of primary care as a common good in society.” We’ve tried to do that in the past with capitated payments with varying degrees of success, and although there are organizations that have figured out how to do this well, others seem to want to reinvent the wheel rather than learning from experience.

Second, the author notes a need to fix EHR technology, to create systems that are “clinical first” and are integrated across all facets of healthcare. Now that we’re over the initial implementation hurdles, it’s time for healthcare organizations to optimize what they have and to push their vendors to deliver additional capabilities and efficiencies.

Third, the author proposes that we change medical education. Many practicing physicians were trained in “big hospitals that glamorize subspecialty and inpatient care.” As someone whose medical school didn’t even have a department of family medicine, I know what that’s like. Hearing comments like “you’re too smart to do primary care” isn’t going to encourage the best and brightest to gravitate to the field (although more people in my class went into family medicine than general surgery, which was a blow to the surgical egos at my institution but gives me some hope).

Technology is at the intersection of many of these concepts and will need to keep pace with other changes as the healthcare environment evolves. EHR and other clinical systems vendors have been varyingly successful at this, with some systems moving towards greater integration in a logical fashion but others growing by acquisition and bolt-on solutions, which adds to the feeling of fragmented care. There’s plenty of discussion about “disruption” and “innovation,” but some days it just feels like we’re nibbling around the edges of the problem. A couple of organizations are poised to make some significant change, and I’m eager to see what they come up with.

Not everyone is going to need subspecialty care in their lifetime, but all of us are consumers of primary care services. Do we know the answers but just need to implement them, or are there solutions we’re still not talking about? Leave a comment or email me.

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Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. The idea that younger people just want the apps and convenience over a consistent relationship with a family doctor punts on the fundamental questions in a way that reinforces the status quo and its massive benefits to certain groups (doctors, old people, etc.)

    I would guess half of people 18-35 have moved in the last couple years. Younger people have less time off work. They are on a high deductible plan and primary care practices can’t tell them what they’ll have to pay (retail can). Wait times to get a visit are a couple months in many parts of the country, more if you are trying to establish a new relationship (which in turn will run the bill up over half a grand.) Younger people don’t have a chronic condition so the immediate value of going in for a visit a few months from now is mostly based around screening. Overall, the costs and barriers to accessing the “country doctor” relationship are higher for younger people while the value and ability to pay is lower. It isn’t a youth “culture” thing; it’s just money.

    The incremental solution is the same as it has always been absent major federal legislation. Dramatically increase the supply of people who can be PCPs. It’s well within state legislatures abilities and it is well within the physician industry’s power. In 40 years all the living voters will have only ever had a transactional relationship with doctors but the retired providers will have sold their practice to private equity so the political backlash will be somebody else’s problem.

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