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Primary Care Access During this Decade

by William J. DeMarco MA CMC, President, Pendelum Health Corporation, July 1, 2010

In the current issue of MCOL’s Thought Leaders newsletter, I was asked: How big of an issue will primary care access become during this decade- what are its implications- and what initiatives (such as medical homes, retail clinics, employer on site clinics, etc) if any, do you think will bring about improvement?" Here is what I replied:

What we continue to learn is that primary care doctors graduate with hopes of becoming the family practice doctor in a smaller town, something we desperately need, but the economics do not permit this new MD to move forward with their career. Because of the large loans and debts of medical school and subhuman conditions of an internship doctors really start out very poor and in debt. The actual earning of a salary does not occur for several years and the salaries for primary care are not rising as fast as specialist salaries. So many are forced to decide to sub-specialize in a more lucrative area where they can make the dollars they want as surgeons of super specialists and join a private practice as a respected member of the medical group.

This drives demand for primary care but until the salary cap blows off or the economics of medical school costs are altered we see the logical overpopulation of specialty practitioners while PCPs are treated as an aside by both hospital’s and physicians. When one calculates the revenue from referrals to specialist and hospitals that a single PCP makes the numbers can be astounding. True the specialists has a higher revenue per patient but the volume of PCP referrals to specialists and hospitals are far greater yet hospitals have been able to keep PCP compensation low and , in some markets, threaten PCPs that they must join the ranks of employed physician or be replaced.

In this vacuum we are seeing innovation. First by remaking primary care as a retail almost impulse buy the for the consumer retailers like Walgreen’s, Target, CVS Wal-Mart and K Mart and even some grocery store chains have brought Primary care to the patient. This is packaged as a Nurse practitioners and offered for common un-complicated illnesses which , for some, is less expensive and less intrusive than the Emergency room and certainly easier than waiting for 4 to 6 weeks for a PCP visit . While this transition occurred Nurse Practitioners and Physicians Assistant salaries shot up some 27% over their colleagues who were still stuck in public health or working as a medical assistant in a practice where physicians did not make full use of their talents.

As Dr Don Berwick ,Nominated CMS chief, has said the best way to manage costs in the delivery of care is to have the most efficient person downstream from the doctors do the work. So you have NPs PAs and RNs doing more of what they are trained to do thereby making the PCP more productive at less cost. In this regard the Employer owned medical practice is gathering steam as more and more employers see the value of designing benefits around the use of early detection and health promotion and less use of unnecessary specialty care unless the PCP has approved it as necessary. A well equipped PCP group practice with NPs and PAs seeing the right patients at the right level of service can be very successful in attracting volume because of its convenience and flexibility for follow-up.

The cost of such a medical group owned by an employer can quickly be paid back in terms of savings to emergency rooms, early detection of serious disease and better coordination of admissions and discharges to avoid readmissions and reduce length of stay for illness or injury. This kind of commitment by management also can create a positive attitude in the employees who feel their employer is not only offering them a way to pay for care through an indemnity insurance plan but also guaranteeing them a place to get it in the workplace. This guarantee is becoming more and more important as less primary care are available and few insurance companies will pay for ER rooms to replace PCP visits.

These various roles of Primary care emphasize team work and coordination of care. Some of the retail clinics are picking up on this as are the hospitals who once feared these competitors have encourage discussion and referrals to assure continuity and communication between patient and practitioners as well as practitioners to practitioners dialogue. Turning this delivery system on its head by having Primary care driven medicine is slowly at work at the federal level with ACOs and MA plans requiring PCP advocates be assigned or selected by each patient. This constant pressure of demand for PCP will, we believe, force hospitals and clinics to rethink their compensation strategies but also put the pressure back on policymakers to revisit funding for primary care spots in rural and urban settings by subsidizing broadly the medical school experience.  By encouraging more newly graduating Physicians, Physicians Assistants and Nurse Practitioners to advance their education with a promise of being that family practice doctor we all want and need

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