primary care

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 8.08.19 AMAbout seven years ago, the California Healthcare Roundtable and HealthAffairs sat down to prepare a white paper on the emerging “phenomenon” of urgent care centers, and what it might mean for primary care. At the time the group couldn’t agree that urgent care was a “disruptive” innovation, but it seemed clear to all participants that it represented a threat to primary care: The rise of UC, the group noted, would lead to 1) less preventive care and 2) concentrate acuity in primary care clinics. They wrote: “[Urgent care] means fewer patients per day, a higher intensity environment for providers, and potentially lower reimbursement.”

In particular, the group couldn’t understand if patients were choosing to leave primary care because they didn’t value having a PCP, or if they were settling for the inherent limitations of UC because cost and convenience outweighed its disadvantages.

 Seventy-five percent  [of UC customers] are women ages 28 to 42 and their children. Some hypothesize that this consumer group thinks of its health care relationships differently than do people of the baby boomer generation and older. The younger cohort often has no “medical home,” while baby boomers and older people tend to view the primary care physician as the center of their medical care. Discussants concurred that what the data do not reveal, however, is whether the medical “homelessness” of this younger group and its high relative use of retail clinics reflect how these consumers want to receive their care or is instead merely their experience (or is a function of the fact that they have fewer chronic conditions and thus need less care and care coordination).

Since the roundtable in 2007, there has been a flood of urgent care centers with ongoing rapid growth. The American Academy of Urgent Care estimates that there are around 9300 UCs nationally. Across the country, clinics are sprouting like flowers, sometimes fueled by private equity investors, but often by hospitals and health systems who are reflexively installing UCs in repurposed strip malls, sometimes without a clear strategy other than “keeping market share” in an otherwise low margin business.

The reasons for growth, according to the American Academy of Urgent Care? Primarily extended hours (as compared to primary care) and better wait times and lower prices than the ED.

As the private-equity fueled urgent care bubble expands, here’s my prediction on how this all plays out: Don’t bet the farm on UCs being the final answer to the consumer’s search for value. For all of UC’s utility, it’s also possible that urgent care may just get out- maneuvered by the next generation of primary care.

Continue reading “Competing With Urgent Care”

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flying cadeuciiI am a foreign born, foreign trained doctor, serving many patients from an ethnic minority, whose native language I never mastered.

So, perhaps I am in a position to reflect a little on the modern notion that healthcare is a standardized service, which can be equally well provided by anyone, from anywhere, with any kind of medical degree and postgraduate training.

1) Doctors are People

No matter what outsiders may want to think, medicine is a pretty personal business and the personalities of patients and doctors matter, possibly more in the long term relationships of Primary Care than in orthopedics or brain surgery. Before physicians came to be viewed as interchangeable provider-employees of large corporations, small groups of like-minded physicians used to form medical groups with shared values and treatment styles. The physicians personified the spirit of their voluntary associations. Some group practices I dealt with in those days were busy, informal and low-tech, while others exuded personal restraint, procedural precision and technical sophistication. Patients gravitated toward practices and doctors they resonated with.

Continue reading “A Doctor is a Doctor is a Doctor, Right?”

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Man looks into the Abyss, and there’s nothin’ staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character, and that’s what keeps him out of the Abyss. – Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook) in the movie “Wall Street”

We hear reform ideas all the time: primary care physicians need to work at the top of license, physicians need to work in teams, healthcare must deliver top-notch customer service, the focus needs to be on creating strong physician/patient relationships, and physicians need to be paid for delivering value.

The question then becomes: how does the healthcare industry implement such ideas?

I believe it would be smart to apply the lessons from other industries.

Specifically, the financial services industry. Continue reading “Primary Care Physicians Need To Be More Like Financial Advisors”

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GundermanOne of the top students at one of the nation’s largest medical schools, Ishan Gohil has made an unusual – and to many of his colleagues – inexplicable decision.  Instead of seeking to train in one of medicine’s most highly specialized and competitive fields, he says, “I elected to pursue a career in family medicine.”  Many view his choice of primary care as ill-advised, largely because family medicine is one of the least competitive fields and ranks at the bottom for income of all medical specialties.

Until his third year, Gohil had planned to pursue orthopedic surgery, which is considerably more difficult to get into than family medicine.  In 2014, the average score on Step 1 of the US Medical Licensing Exam for students entering family medicine was 218, while for orthopedic surgery it was 245 (the overall average is 230).  Average annual salary levels diverge even more widely, at $122,000 for family physicians and $488,000 for orthopedic surgeons. Continue reading “Solving the Primary Care Shortage”

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Andrew Morris Singer PCP

On a recent evening at Harvard Medical School, the Primary Care Innovation Challenge and Pitch-Off ,sponsored by WellPoint’s American Resident Project, brought together six finalists, primary care luminaries and trainees, and a host of hangers-on and camp followers for a couple of hours of demos and discussions. The tenor of the evening, which was in many ways a pep rally for primary care – not that there’s anything wrong with that — was best captured by the rhetorical question posed by Asaf Bitton to the primary care practitioners and trainees in the hall, “Are you going to be a playwright or a critic?”

The hoots and hollers in response made clear that these are not your grandfather’s primary care docs. The call to action was echoed by many of the speakers, notably community organizer turned primary care physician Andrew Morris Singer and Dennis Dimitri, both advocating for, well, advocating for primary care.  Bitton’s opening also included the exhortation that proved to be predictive of the winner of the top honors from among the six pitches: Innovation in primary care is not about the technology; it needs to enable better human care.

Continue reading “Innovation, Primary Care Style”

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Jack CochranThe Health Care Blog recently featured our Open Letter to Primary Care Physicians,generating quite a bit of reaction. A commenter made the point that “we cannot expect” primary care physicians “to act differently until and unless they get paid differently.” [Emphasis added]

The comment refers to a doctor in solo practice and notes that “the first step is changing how you are paid, in one way or another. And there are many ways that work better than the current code-driven fee-for-service model.”

Does waiting for payment reform make sense? Or should primary care practices act now to change the way they practice in anticipation of payment shifts?

Moving Toward Value-based Care

Some physicians groups seem somewhat frozen – unsure exactly where health care payment is headed and thus waiting until there is a clearer signal.

But it seems to us that the payment reform signal grows louder and clearer and support for that contention comes in a recent research report* from McKesson, the international consultancy:

We can now say with certainty that healthcare delivery is moving in one direction: towards value-based care.

This is care that is paid for based on results – on measurable quality – as opposed to the traditional fee-for-service approach that pays for volume. McKesson notes that

The affordability crisis is causing unprecedented changes in the healthcare landscape, the most significant of which is the transition from the current volume-based model [fee-for-service] to myriad models based on measures of value.

To remain relevant and competitive, payers, hospitals, health systems, and clinicians must respond now to integrate value-based models into their existing systems.

Continue reading “Waiting For Payment Reform?”

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Dear Doctor,

The future is in your hands.

You have the opportunity to make primary care better.

More efficient.
More accessible.
And more affordable.

We know you and other primary care doctors have more responsibilities than ever. But you also have great influence, along with the ability and opportunity to change this country’s health care system for the better.

Primary care is essential to the quality of health care, and we need you now more than ever.

Maneuvering the Minefield

According to research firm Harris Interactive, “the practice of medicine is … a minefield. … Physicians today are very defensive – they feel under assault on all fronts.’’* Harris questions, “how much fight the docs have left in them. Some are still fired up … while others have already been beaten down.’’

Those who feel frustration, anger and burnout say they are squeezed by administrators, regulators, insurance companies and more. They worry about the possibility of a lawsuit that could destroy your career.

The question is: What can be done about it? Some of you may choose to remain in the status quo. Some of you have chosen to retire early or otherwise leave the field of medicine entirely. Yet some of you have said enough is enough and found specific solutions that mark a pathway forward. You sought – and found – specific solutions that mark a pathway forward.

If you’ve rejected the status quo and joined your fellows in search of innovations from other practices that you have applied at home, congratulations. You’re a physician leader who’s doing great things for your patients, your colleagues and yourself. You are undoubtedly more satisfied in your work than before, and you are quite likely providing better care.

Continue reading “An Open Letter to Primary Care Physicians”

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flying cadeuciiIn the forty years since I started medical school, I have worked in socialized medicine, student health, a cash-only practice and a traditional fee for service small group practice. The bulk of my experience has been in a government-sponsored rural health clinic, working for an underserved, underinsured rural population.

Today, I will pull together the threads from my previous posts in the series “How Should Doctors Get Paid?” I will make a couple of concrete suggestions, borrowing from all the places I have worked and from the latest trends among the doctors who are revolting against the insurance companies by starting Concierge Medicine and Direct Primary Care practices.

Because I am a primary care physician, I will mostly speak of how I think primary care physicians should be paid.

I will expand on these concepts below, but here are the main points:

1) Have the insurance company provide a flat rate in the $500/year range to patients’ freely chosen Primary Care Provider, similar to membership fees in Direct Care Medical Practices.

2) Provide a prepaid card for basic healthcare, free from billing expenses and administration.

3) Unused balances can be rolled over to the following years, letting patients “save” money to cover copays for future elective procedures.

4) Keep prior authorizations for big-ticket items, both testing and procedures, if necessary for the health of the system.

5) Keep specialty care fee-for-service.

6) Have a national debate about where health care ends and life enhancement begins and who should pay for what.

Health insurance needs to be simple to understand and administer. It needs to promote wellness, and it needs to remove barriers from seeking advice or care early in the course of disease. It needs to empower patients to use health care services wisely by aligning patients’ and providers’ incentives.

Health insurance should not be deceptive. It should not promise to pay for screenings (colonoscopies and mammograms) and stop paying if the screening reveals a problem (colon polyps or breast cancer). It should offer patients the right to set their own priorities for their health while demanding concern for our fellow citizens’ right to also receive care.

Continue reading “A Swedish Country Doctor’s Proposal for Health Insurance Reform”

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flying cadeuciiIt’s a strange business we are in.

Doctors are spending less time seeing patients, and the nation declares a doctor shortage, best remedied by having more non-physicians delivering patient care while doctors do more and more non-doctor work.

Usually, in cases of limited resources, we start talking about conservation: Make cars more fuel efficient, reduce waste in manufacturing, etc.

Funny, then, that in health care there seems to be so little discussion about how a limited supply of doctors can best serve the needs of their patients.

One hair-brained novel idea making its way through the blogs and journals right now is to have pharmacists treat high blood pressure. That would have to mean sending them back to school to learn physical exam skills and enough physiology and pathology about heart disease and kidney disease, which are often interrelated with hypertension.

Not only would this cause fragmentation of care, but it would probably soon take up enough of our pharmacists’ time that we would end up with a serious shortage of pharmacists.

Within medical offices there are many more staff members who interact with patients about their health issues: case managers, health coaches, accountable care organization nurses, medical assistants and many others are assuming more responsibilities.

We call this “working to the top of their license.”

Doctors, on the other hand, are spending more time on data entry than thirty years ago, as servants of the Big Data funnels that the Government and insurance companies put in our offices to better control where “their” money (which we all paid them) ultimately goes.

In primary care we are also spending more time on public health issues, even though this has shown little success and is quite costly. We are treating patients one at a time for lifestyle-related conditions affecting large subgroups of the population: obesity, prediabetes, prehypertension and smoking, to name a few that would be more suitable for non-physician management than hard-core hypertension.

It is high time we have a serious national debate, not yet about how many doctors we need, but what we need our doctors to do. Only then can we talk numbers.

Hans Duvefelt, MD is a Swedish-born family physician in a small town in rural Maine. He blogs regularly at A Country Doctor Writes where this piece originally appeared.

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There’s a war being waged on one of America’s most revered institutions, the Emergency Room. The ER, or Emergency Department (ED for the sake of this post) has been the subject of at least a dozen primetime TV shows.

What’s not to love about a place where both Doogie Houser and George Clooney worked?

Every new parent in the world knows three different ways to get to the closest ED. It’s the place we all know we can go, no matter what, when we are feeling our worst. And yet, we’re not supposed to go there. Unless we are. But you know, don’t really go.

Somehow, we’ve turned the ED into this sacrosanct place where arriving by ambulance is ok, and all others are deemed worthy based on their insurance rather than acuity. If you think I’m wrong, ask any ED director if they want to lose 25% of their Blue Cross Blue Shield volume.

But its true. I hear ED physicians openly express disappointment in people who came into the ED and shouldn’t have.

It’s just a stomach bug, you shouldn’t be here for this… Or, it’s not my job to fill your prescriptions…

Some history

The Emergency Department is a fairly modern invention. The first EDs were born of two separate, though similar, aims. At Johns Hopkins, the ED began as the accident room, place where physicians could assess and treat —wait for it —minor accidents.

Elsewhere, in Pontiac Michigan and Northern Virginia early EDs were modeled after army M.A.S.H. field hospitals. They were serving more acute needs.

Today, billing for emergency department visits is done on the E&M Levels where level 1 is the least acute (think removing a splinter) and level 6 is traumatic life saving measures requiring hospitalization (think very bad car wreck). Most EDs, and CMS auditors, look for a bell curve distribution, which means there are more level 3 and 4 incidents than most others. While coding is unfortunately subjective, solid examples of level 3 visits include stomach bugs requiring IV fluids, a cut requiring stitches, and treatment of a migraine headache.

Continue reading “Stop the War on the Emergency Room!!! (Fix the System Failure)”

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