The End of Primary Care?
Fewer and fewer of our nation's medical students and residents are opting for training in primary care. They are, instead, gravitating towards more lucrative careers as sub-specialists and surgeons. At the same time, seeing dwindling personal incomes and increasing workloads, more practicing PCPs have their eyes on retirement or on some other exit strategy. The apparent consequence of this trend will be the catastrophic demise of the PCP as we know it.
"Primary care is on the verge of collapse," the ACP says.
Perhaps a moment's reflection will convince most people that the ACP is prescribing at least a modest dose of hyperbole. Generally speaking, the ACP is an extremely reputable and responsible organization. It is in fact one of our leading physician and patient advocacy groups.
In this instance however, they are taking some poetic license.
Some of their concerns are, no doubt, valid. Current insurance reimbursement patterns are skewed in favor of procedures and procedural-related specialties. In contrast, there is often rather poor compensation for the more "cognitive" specialties of medicine such as primary care. This is certainly reflected in lower incomes for PCPs and perhaps also in a loss of prestige; and of the perceived desirability of primary care medicine as a career.
But the language used by the ACP to describe this problem borders on the hysterical.
Doesn't anyone in healthcare have faith in markets? While the statement "nature abhors a vacuum," is no doubt accurate as an expression of physical law, it is no less valid with respect to economic theory as well. As PCPs become less readily available, basic price theory suggests that fees and salaries will rise to accommodate -- and with that, a redistribution within the labor market towards primary care.
There will always be a need for the PCP. He or she is truly the backbone of healthcare. Practitioners of the most obscure, high-tech, procedure-oriented specialties will concede this point. Although the manner of its practice may change, primary care can be guaranteed to survive and persist. Patients will always require an entry point into the maze of modern healthcare delivery.
Perhaps we in medical education are doing a poor job of capturing an interest in primary care in our medical students and residents -- and no doubt, they are now seeing with their own eyes how current reimbursement patterns are eroding primary care income. However, these are surmountable problems if market thinking is allowed to prevail.
For one thing, foreign medical graduates are certainly attracted to primary care and can be expected to take up the slack filled by this impending dearth of PCPs. Additionally, the rapid numerical growth and public acceptance of nurse practitioners and physician assistants will also be likely to fill this void.
In fact, as the ACP in their own report has indicated, there are other things that can be done to relieve the stress on our current primary care system. Wider (not to mention compensated) use of E-mail and telephone consultations, for example, could often be utilized instead of more expensive office visits. Innovative scheduling schemes and computerized medical records can increase efficiency and in so doing, boost primary care profits. No doubt other measures are possible as well.
More importantly, if the general public still ascribes value to competent, American-trained physicians, then current compensation trends will undoubtedly shift. If patients believe that having doctors involved in their care (as opposed to paramedical practitioners) is important to maintain both quality and satisfaction then third party payers will have no choice but to increase reimbursements. On the other hand, if patients and insurers do not place a premium on the care provided by doctors then what difference does it make? Ultimately, patients will pay for and receive the care that they desire.
Although I am no libertarian and I definitely see an occasional role for government intervention, I cannot imagine a scenario where new federal laws and policy will help to resolve this trend successfully. More regulation of the healthcare industry will surely render it less responsive to market pressures. I have little faith in the ability of lawmakers to correct subtle, ever-changing manpower needs quicker and more efficiently than the law of supply and demand.
That said, since a large part of the third-party payer pool already derives from the federal government (e.g. Medicare and Medicaid), then changes can certainly be made in these existing programs with a minimum of new "innovative" legislation. The need for sweeping policy changes and more federal intrusion not only seems premature, but counterproductive.
Physicians and paramedical practitioners, third-party payers, and of course patients have competing self-interests that under a healthy, free market will resolve price and manpower issues far more precisely than a public policy approach riddled with hidden agendas and political patronage. If I thought that there was evidence that government regulation had a demonstrable track record of effectively controlling supply and demand, then perhaps I'd feel differently.
But unfortunately there isn't and I don't.