“Primary care practice in the future may be more akin to an Amish barn-raising than care delivered by the fictional Marcus Welby.” – Valerie E. Stone, et al., “Physician Education and Training in Primary Care” (2010)
Current proposals to remedy the crisis in primary care, especially among those Americans living in small, rural communities, are politically correct (or, in the case of J-1 waivers for foreign-trained physicians, ethically unacceptable) gestures. Small adjustments in Medicare reimbursement schedules for physicians serving the underserved and unenforceable mandates by state legislatures that public medical schools “produce” more primary care physicians are all but meaningless. Rural medicine programs at a handful of medical colleges basically serve the tiny number of rural-based students who arrive at medical school already committed to serving the underserved. Such programs have had little if any impact on a crisis of systemic proportions. If we want to pull significant numbers of typical medical students into primary care, we must empower them and reward them – big time. So what exactly do we do?
- We phase out “family medicine” for reasons I have adduced and replace it with a new specialty that will supplement internal medicine and pediatrics as core primary care specialties. I term the new specialty procedural rural medicine (PRM) and physicians certified to practice it procedural care specialists. Self-evidently, many procedural rural specialists will practice in urban settings. The “rural” designation simply underscores the fact that physicians with this specialty training will be equipped to care for underserved populations (most of whom live in rural areas) who lack ready access to specialist care. Such care will be procedurally enlarged beyond the scope of contemporary family medicine.
- Procedural care specialists will serve the underserved, whether in private practice or under the umbrella of Federally Qualified Health Centers, Rural Health Centers, or the National Health Service Corps. They will complete a four-year residency that equips all rural care specialists to perform a range of diagnostic and treatment procedures that primary care physicians now occasionally perform in certain parts of the country (e.g., colposcopy, sigmoidoscopy, nasopharyngoscopy), but more often do not. It would equip them to do minor surgery, including office-based dermatology, basic podiatry, and wound management. I leave it to clinical educators to determine exactly which baseline procedures can be mastered within a general four-year rural care residency, and I allow that it may be necessary to expand the residency to five years. I further allow for procedural tracks within the final year of a procedural care program, so that certain board-certified procedural care specialists would be trained to perform operative obstetrics whereas others would be trained to perform colonoscopy. The point is that all rural care proceduralists would be trained to perform a range of baseline procedures. As such, they would be credentialed by hospitals as “specialists” trained to perform those procedures and would receive the same fee by Medicare and third-party insurers as the “root specialists” for particular procedures.
- Procedural care specialists will train in hospitals but will spend a considerable portion of their residencies learning and practicing procedurally oriented primary care in community health centers. Such centers are the ideal venue for learning to perform “specialty procedures” under specialist supervision; they also inculcate the mindset associated with PRM, since researchers have found that residents who have their “continuity clinic” in community health centers are more likely to practice in underserved areas following training.
- On completion of an approved four- or five-year residency in procedural rural medicine and the passing of PRM specialty boards, procedural care specialists will have all medical school and residency-related loans wiped off the books. Period. This financial relief will be premised on a contractual commitment to work full-time providing procedural primary care to an underserved community for no less than, say, 10 years.
- Procedural care specialists who make this commitment deserve a bonus. They have become national resources in healthcare. Aspiring big league baseball players who are drafted during the first four rounds of the MLB draft, many right out of high school, typically receive signing bonuses in the $100,000-$200,000 range. In 2012, the top 100 MLB draftees each received a cool half million or more, and the top 50 received from one to six million. I propose that we give each newly trained procedural care specialist a $250,000 signing bonus in exchange for his or her 10-year commitment to serve the underserved. Call me a wild-eyed radical, but I think physicians who have completed high school, four years of college, four years of medical school, and a four- or five-year residency program and committed themselves to bringing health care to underserved rural and urban Americans for 10 years deserve the same financial consideration as journeymen ball players given a crack at the big leagues.
- Taken together, the two foregoing proposals will make a start at decreasing the income gap between one group of primary care physicians (PCPs) and their colleagues in medical subspecialties and surgical specialties. This gap decreases the odds of choosing primary care by nearly 50%; it is also associated with the career dissatisfaction of PCPs relative to other physicians, which may prompt them to retire earlier than their specialist colleagues.
- I am not especially concerned about funding the debt waiver and signing bonuses for board-certified procedural care specialists. These physicians will bring health care to over 60 million underserved Americans and, over time, they will be instrumental in saving the system, especially Medicare and Medicaid, billions of dollars. Initial costs will be a drop in the bucket in the context of American healthcare spending that consumed 17.9% of GDP in 2011. Various funding mechanisms for primary care training – Title VII, Section 747 of the Public Health Service Act of 1963, the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration, Medicare – have long been in place, with the express purpose of expanding geographic distribution of primary care physicians in order to bring care to the underserved. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 may be expected greatly to increase their funding.
These proposals offer an alternative vision for addressing the crisis in primary care that now draws only 3% of non-osteopathic physicians to federally designated Health Professional Shortage Areas and consigns over 20% of Americans to the care of 9% of its physicians. The mainstream approach moves in a different direction, and the 2010 Macy Foundation-sponsored conference, “Who Will Provide Primary Care and How Will They Be Trained,” typifies it. Academic physicians participating in the conference sought to address the crisis in primary care through what amounts to a technology-driven resuscitation of the “family practice” ideology of the late 1960s. For them, PCPs of the future will be systems-savvy coordinators/integrators with a panoply of administrative and coordinating skills. In this vision of things, the “patient-centered medical home” becomes the site of primary care, and effective practice within this setting obliges PCPs to acquire leadership skills that focus on “team building, system reengineering, and quality improvement.”
To be sure, docs will remain leaders of the healthcare team, but their leadership veers away from procedural medicine and into the domain of “quality improvement techniques and ‘system architecture’ competencies to continuously improve the function and design of practice systems.” The “systems” in question are healthcare teams, redubbed “integrated delivery systems.” It follows that tomorrow’s PCPs will be educated into a brave new world of “shared competencies” and interprofessional collaboration, both summoning “the integrative power of health information technology as the basis of preparation.”
When this daunting skill set is enlarged still further by curricula addressing prevention and health promotion, wellness and “life balance” counseling, patient self-management for chronic disease, and strategies for engaging patients in all manner of decision-making, we end up with new-style primary care physicians who look like information-age reincarnations of the “holistic” mind-body family practitioners of the 1970s. What exactly will be dropped from existing medical school curricula and residency training programs to make room for acquisition of these new skill sets remains unaddressed.
I have nothing against prevention, health promotion, wellness, “life balance” counseling, and the like. Three cheers for all of them – and for patient-centered care and shared decision-making as well. But I think health policy experts and medical academics have taken to theorizing about such matters – and the information-age skill sets they fall back on – in an existential vacuum, as if “new competencies in patient engagement and coaching” can be taught didactically as opposed to being earned in the relational fulcrum of clinical encounter. “Tracking and assisting patients as they move across care settings,” “coordinating services with other providers,” providing wellness counseling, teaching self-management strategies, and the like – all these things finally fall back on a trusting doctor-patient relationship. In study after study, patient trust, a product of empathic doctoring, has been linked to issues of compliance, subjective well-being, and treatment outcome. Absent such trust, information-age “competencies” will have limited impact; they will briefly blossom but not take root in transformative ways.
I suggest we attend to first matters first. We must fortify patient trust by training primary care doctors to do more, procedurally speaking, and then reward them for caring for underserved Americans who urgently need to have more done for them. The rest – the tracking, assisting, coordinating, and counseling – will follow. And the patient-centered medical home of the future will have patient educators, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and social workers to absorb physicians’ counseling functions, just as it will have practice managers and care coordinators to guide physicians through the thicket of intertwining information technologies. We still have much to learn from Marcus Welby – and William Stepansky – on the community-sustaining art of barn-raising and especially the difference between barns well and poorly raised.
 Quoted from “Who Will Provide Primary Care And How Will They Be Trained?” Proceedings of a conference chaired by L. Cronenwett & V. J. Dzau, transcript edited by B. J. Culliton & S. Russell (NY: Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation, 2010), p. 148.
 The prerogative to develop specialized knowledge and treatment skills within certain areas has always been part of general practice, and it was explicitly recommended in the Report of the AMA Ad Hoc Committee on Education for Family Practice (the Willard Committee) of 1966 that paved the way for establishment of the American Board of Family Practice in 1969. See N.A., Family Practice: Creation of a Specialty (American Academy of Family Physicians, 1980), p. 41.
 C. G. Morris & F. M. Chen, “Training residents in community health centers: facilitators and barriers,” Ann. Fam. Med., 7:488-94, 2009; C. G. Morris, et al., “Training family physicians in community health centers,” Fam. Med., 40:271-6, 2008; E. M. Mazur, et al., “Collaboration between an internal medicine residency program and a federally qualified health center: Norwalk hospital and the Norwalk community health center,” Acad. Med., 76: 1159-64, 2001.
 “Specialty and geographic distribution of the physician workforce: What influences medical student & resident choices?” A publication of the Robert Graham Center, funded by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation (2009), pp. 5, 47; “Who Will Provide Primary Care And How Will They Be Trained” (n. 1), p. 140.
 “Who Will Provide Primary Care And How Will They Be Trained”(n. 1), pp. 147, 148.
 Ibid, p. 151.