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.
Annie Lowrey’s July 28 article “Doctor shortage likely to worsen with health law” in the New York Times noted the growing shortage of primary care doctors particularly in economically disadvantaged communities, both in rural and inner-city America. This problem will likely get worse before it gets better as more Americans gain coverage and seek a regular source of care. As the article suggests, training more doctors and incentivizing them to pursue careers in primary care will be a key part of the solution. And it will require a multipronged campaign, using both some of the traditional strategies for workforce renewal and a few unique tactics not typically deployed in efforts to fix health care.
The primary care workforce pipeline had dried up before the Affordable Care Act was passed. Currently, one out of every five Americans lacks access to primary care. As a result, up to 75% of the care delivered in emergency departments these days is primary care . This overcrowds and overburdens EDs, raises costs, and limits EDs’ ability to do what they were designed to do: provide acute, emergency care that makes the difference between life and death. So the primary care shortage threatens our access not only to primary care but also to emergency care.
How did we get here? Many are quick to point to primary care doctors’ low salaries compared to those of their sub-specialist colleagues. Indeed, choosing a career in primary care rather than a sub-specialty means walking away from 3.5 million dollars of additional lifetime earnings.That’s tough to do when you’re looking at $150-200,000 of debt, which is the average debt of an American medical student at graduation.But the crisis in our primary care pipeline goes far beyond the money.