I’ve heard a lot of shocking things since arriving in England five months ago on my sabbatical. But nothing has had me more gobsmacked than when, earlier this month, I was chatting with James Morrow, a Cambridge-area general practitioner. We were talking about physicians’ salaries in the UK and he casually mentioned that he was the primary breadwinner in his family.
His wife, you see, is a surgeon.
This more than any other factoid captures the Alice in Wonderland world of GPs here in England. Yes—and it’s a good thing you’re sitting down—the average GP makes about 20% more than the average subspecialist (though the specialists sometimes earn more through private practice—more on this in a later blog). This is important in and of itself, but the pay is also a metaphor for a well-considered decision by the National Health Service (NHS) nearly a decade ago to nurture a contented, surprisingly independent primary care workforce with strong incentives to improve quality.
Appreciating the enormity of this decision and its relevance to the US healthcare system requires a little historical perspective.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, the British system cleaves the world of primary care and everything else much more starkly than we do in the States. All the specialists (the “ologists,” as they like to call them) are based in hospitals, where they have their outpatient practices, perform their procedures, and staff their specialty wards. Primary care in the community is delivered by GPs, who resemble our family practitioners in training and disposition, but also differ from them in many ways.
Matt Yglesias at Think Progress took a look at some OECD data comparing U.S. physicians to their international counterparts and concluded we need more doctors. The evidence? There’s only 2.4 practicing physicians per 1,000 population in the U.S., second lowest in the OECD and somewhat below the 3.0 median (the range is from 2.2 physicians per 1,000 population in Japan to 4.0 in Norway). At the same time, the average U.S. medical consumer sees a physician only 3.9 times a year compared to the 6.3 OECD median. Yes, we pay a lot for health services including physician services (he reprints a chart showing average pay for U.S. physicians, whether highly paid orthopedic surgeons or relatively poorly paid primary care docs, that shows they are the highest paid among six well-off OECD countries). But his conclusion that America therefore needs more docs is off the mark.
This is a classic case where picking out a few trees as signposts in a dense forest of data leads one down the wrong path. His own charts show that the relatively small population of Japanese physicians enables that country’s general population to see a physician a stunning 13.2 times a year, twice the OECD average. One gets an image of a team of six doctors greeting every patient who walks in the door. Actually, that isn’t far from wrong. During my most recent visit to Japan, I visited a community clinic in Kumamoto Prefecture on Kyushu that gives local citizens their annual wellness exam, which is reimbursed under their national health care system. Every person is given a day off work to get this exam. At the clinic, the patients moved from room to room. At each stop over the course of a day, they were examined by different physicians and technicians who specialized in various aspects of personal health. A small number of doctors. A high level of primary preventive care with many hands-on encounters. Few visits to high-priced surgeons. Low overall health care costs.