As the implementation of health care reform unfolds, urgent action is needed to shore up the nations crumbling foundation of primary care.
It is difficult enough for many Americans today to find a primary care doctor; we can only imagine how tough it will be as millions more Americans appropriately gain access to the system in the years ahead. And there are plenty of signs that the current primary care crisis is only getting worse. For example, half as many U.S. medical school graduates are entering the primary care fields of family medicine and general adult medicine today, compared with 15 years ago.
Primary care is the foundation of high-performing health systems. A primary care physician, working alongside nurses and other team members, serves as a patients trusted personal physician who delivers patient-centered, whole person care. Research clearly shows that primary care is good both for peoples health and their pocketbooks, preventing disease, assisting patients to navigate a complex health system, helping patients to manage chronic conditions such as asthma to avert asthmatic attacks and reducing trips to the emergency room and the associated high costs of hospital care.
Yet the nations inadequate investment in primary care is producing an epidemic of medical homelessness patients unable to find a primary care medical home. From 2006 to 2008, for example, the number of Medicare beneficiaries experiencing difficulties finding a primary care physician increased by 17 percent. This urgent problem is spurring concerted action among a broad coalition of stakeholders, as we noted in an article we wrote along with Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and AARP President Jennie Chin Hansen in the current issue of the health policy journal Health Affairs.
A leading force among these stakeholders is the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative, consisting of some 700 organizations including large employers such as IBM, Dow Chemical, Whirlpool, consumer groups such as AARP, unions, primary care clinician organizations, health plans and others. Its aim is not just to prop up primary care, but to transform it to lead a durable 21st-century health care system.
For purchasers and health plans, that means paying differently. This includes using innovative payment models to support the time physicians spend communicating with patients by e-mail or phone, or developing an integrated care plan with the patients home care team or physical therapist; supporting nonphysician personnel to educate patients in self-management of their diabetes or arthritis; and modernizing practices through adoption and meaningful use of electronic medical records and other health information technology.
For primary care physicians, a new compact for primary care means becoming more patient-centered and accountable. This includes enhancing accessibility through expanded office hours, convenient same-day appointment systems and health information technology systems allowing patients to access their lab results online and e-mail their physician; working in teams with other health professionals such as nurses and pharmacists; and explicitly monitoring performance on key quality and patient-safety metrics.