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As Doctor Burnout Climbs, Can We Save Primary Care?

By RONALD DIXON

Week after week, I hear from colleagues in diverse specialties about how exhausted they are from practicing medicine.

It’s no surprise that they are looking for careers outside of medicine. The demands and strain are unsustainable.

So it’s also no surprise that a recent survey showed 40% of primary care clinicians are worried that their field won’t exist in five years and that 21% expect to leave primary care in three years as a result of COVID-19-related burnout. 

While COVID-19 is the tipping point, this burnout is the result of the relentless and mounting administrative burden placed on us by electronic medical records (EMRs), coding and billing requirements and prior authorizations. And then it is exacerbated by uncertainty mounting in the primary care field, with new medical care entrants popping up everywhere — from retail pharmacies to digital health startups — aiming to create their own primary care model, replacing rather than working with existing ones.

Where it All Began

The roots of this burden began three decades ago with the advent of an acronym that few outside of the healthcare world know of today — the resource-based relative value scale (RBRVS). This payment system, launched in 1989 and subsequently adopted by Medicare in 1992, led to what we know now as the foundation of the U.S. healthcare payment system.  

The RBRVS system assigns procedures a relative value which is adjusted by geographic region. Prices are based on physician work (54%), practice expense (41%) and malpractice expense (5%).

Since the initiation of the scale, the relative value of specialist work has remained much higher than primary care. This disparate compensation, in combination with most health maintenance and patient supportive tasks delegated to primary care, has led to significant fatigue. 

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