Category Archives: Rural Medicine

Procedural Rural Medicine

“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)[1]

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.[2] 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.
  3. 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.[3]
  4. 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.
  5. 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.[4]  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.
  6. 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.[5]
  7. 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.”[6]

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”[7] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[5] “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.

[6] “Who Will Provide Primary Care And How Will They Be Trained”(n. 1), pp. 147, 148.

[7] Ibid, p. 151.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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Re-Visioning Primary Care

Existing approaches to the looming crisis of primary care are like Congressional approaches to our fiscal crisis.  They have been, and will continue to be, unavailing because they shy away from structural change that would promote equity.  I suggest the time has come to think outside the financial box of subsidization and loan repayment for medical students and residents who agree to serve the medically underserved for a few years.  Here are my propositions and proposals:

  1. We should redefine “primary care” in a way that gives primary care physicians (PCPs) a fighting chance of actually functioning as specialists. This means eliminating “family medicine” altogether.  The effort to make the family physician (FP) (until 2003, the “family practitioner”) a specialist among specialists was tried in the 70s and by and largely failed – not for FP patients, certainly, but for FPs themselves, who, by most accounts, failed to achieve the academic stature and clinical privileges associated with specialist standing.  It is time to face this hard fact and acknowledge that the era of modern general practice/family medicine, as it took shape in the 1940s and came to fruition in the quarter century following World War II, is at an end.  Yet another round of financial incentives that make it easier for medical students and residents to “specialize” in family medicine will fail.  “Making it easier” will not make it easy enough, nor will it overcome a specialist mentality that has been entrenched since the 1950s.  Further policy-related efforts to increase the tenability of family medicine, such as increasing Medicare reimbursement for primary care services or restructuring Medicare to do away with primary care billing costs, will be socioeconomic Band-Aids that cover over the professional, personal, familial, and, yes, financial strains associated with family medicine in the twenty-first century.  Vague and unenforceable “mandates” by state legislatures directing public medical schools to “produce” more primary care physicians have been, and will continue to be, political Band-Aids.[1]
  2. As a society, we must re-vision generalist practice as the province of internists and pediatricians.  We must focus on developing incentives that encourage internists and pediatricians to practice general internal medicine and general pediatrics, respectively.  This reconfiguring of primary care medicine will help advance the “specialty” claims of primary care physicians.  Historically speaking, internal medicine and pediatrics are specialties, and the decision-making authority and case management prerogatives of internists and pediatricians are, in many locales, still those of specialists. General internists become “chief medical officers” of their hospitals; family physicians, with very rare exceptions, do not.  For a host of pragmatic and ideological reasons, many more American medical students at this juncture in medical history will enter primary care as internists and pediatricians than as family physicians.
  3. Part of this re-visioning and reconfiguring must entail recognition that generalist values are not synonymous with generalist practice.  Generalist values can be cultivated (or neglected) in any type of postgraduate medical training and implemented (or neglected) by physicians in any specialty. There are caring physicians among specialists, just as there are less-than-caring primary care physicians aplenty.  Caring physicians make caring interventions, however narrow their gaze.  My wonderfully caring dentist only observes the inside of my mouth but he is no less concerned with my well-being on account of it.  The claim of G. Gayle Stephens, one of the founders of the family practice specialty in the late 1960s, that internists, as a class, were zealous scientists committed to “a mechanistic and flawed concept of disease,” whereas family physicians, as a class, were humanistic, psychosocially embedded caregivers, was specious then and now.[2]  General internists are primary care physicians, and they can be expected to be no less caring (and, sadly, no more caring) of their patients than family physicians.  This is truer still of general pediatrics, which, as far back as the late nineteenth century, provided a decidedly patient-centered agenda for a cohort of gifted researcher-clinicians, many women physicians among them, whose growth as specialists (and, by the 1920s and 30s, as pediatric subspecialists) went hand-in-hand with an abiding commitment to the “whole patient.”[3]
  4. We will not remedy the primary care crisis by eliminating family medicine and developing incentives to keep internists and pediatricians in the “general practice” of their specialties.  In addition, we need policy initiatives to encourage subspecialized internists and subspecialized pediatricians to continue to work as generalists.  This has proven a workable solution in many developed countries, where the provision of primary care by specialists is a long-established norm.[4]   And, in point of fact, it has long been a de facto reality in many smaller American communities, where medical and pediatric subspecialists in cardiology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, et al. also practice general internal medicine and general pediatrics.  Perhaps we need a new kind of mandate:  that board-certified internists and pediatricians practice general internal medicine and general pediatrics, respectively, for a stipulated period (say, two years) before beginning their subspecialty fellowships.

Can we remedy the shortage of primary care physicians through the conduits of internal medicine and pediatrics?  No, absolutely not.  Even if incentive programs and mandates increase the percentage of internists and pediatricians who practice primary care, they will hardly provide the 44,000-53,000 new primary care physicians we will need by 2025.[5]  Nor will an increase in the percentage of medical students who choose primary care pull these new providers to the underserved communities where they are desperately needed.  There is little evidence that increasing the supply of primary care physicians affects (mal)distribution of those providers across the country.  Twenty percent of the American population lives in nonmetropolitan areas and is currently served by 9% of the nation’s physicians; over one third of these rural Americans live in what the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designates “Health Professional Shortage Areas” (HPSAs) in need of primary medical care.[6]  Efforts to induce foreign-trained physicians to serve these communities by offering them J-1 visa waivers have barely made a dent in the problem and represent an unconscionable “brain drain” of the medical resources of developing countries.[7]  The hope that expansion of rural medicine training programs at U.S. medical schools, taken in conjunction with increased medical school enrollement, could meet the need for thousands of new rural PCPs is not being borne out.  Graduating rural primary care physicians has not been, and likely will not be, a high priority for most American medical schools, a reality acknowledged by proponents of rural medicine programs.[8]

Over and against the admirable but ill-fated initiatives on the table, I propose two focal strategies for addressing the primary care crisis as a crisis of uneven distribution of medical services across the population:

  1. We must expend political capital and economic resources to encourage people to become mid-level providers, i.e., physician’s assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs), and then develop incentives to keep them in primary care.  This need is more pressing than ever given (a) evidence that mid-level practitioners are more likely to remain in underserved areas than physicians,[9] and (b) the key role of mid-level providers in the team delivery systems, such as  Accountable Care Organizations and Patient-Centered Medical Homes, promoted by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.  Unlike other health care providers, PAs change specialties over the course of their careers without additional training, and since the late 1990s, more PAs have left family medicine than have entered it.  It has become incumbent on us as a society to follow the lead of the armed forces and the Veterans Health Administration in exploiting this health care resource.[10]  To wit, (a) we must provide incentives to attract newly graduated PAs to primary care in underserved communities and to pull specialty-changing “journeyman PAs” back to primary care,[11] and (b) we must ease the path of military medics and corpsmen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan into PA programs by waiving college-degree eligibility requirements that have all but driven them away from these programs.[12]  Although the Physician Assistant profession came into existence in the mid-1960s to capitalize on the skill set and experience of medical corpsman returning from Vietnam, contemporary PA programs, with few exceptions, no longer recruit military veterans into their programs.[13]
  2. Finally, and most controversially, we need a new primary care specialty aimed at providing comprehensive care to rural and underserved communities.  I designate this new specialty Procedural Rural Medicine (PRM) and envision it as the most demanding – and potentially most rewarding – primary care specialty.  PRM would borrow and enlarge the recruitment strategies employed by the handful of medical schools with rural medicine training programs.[14]  But it would require a training curriculum, a residency program, and a broad system of incentives all its own.

In the next installment of this series, I will elaborate my vision of Procedural Rural Medicine and explain how and why it differs from family medicine as it currently exists.


[1] D. Hogberg, “The Next Exodus: Primary-Care Physicians and Medicare,” National Policy Analysis #640 (http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA640.html); C S. Weissert & S. L. Silberman, “Sending a policy signal: state legislatures, medical schools, and primary care mandates,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 23:743-770, 1998.

[2] G. G. Stephens, The Intellectual Basis of Family Practice (Tucson, AZ: Winter Publishing, 1982), pp. 77, 96.

[3] See E. S. More, Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 170-72.  Edith Dunham, Martha Eliot, Helen Taussig, Edith Banfield Jackson, and Virginia Apgar stand out among the pioneer pediatricians who were true generalist-specialists.

[4] See W. J. Stephen, An Analysis of Primary Care: An International Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) and B. S. Starfield, Primary Care: Concept, Evaluation and Policy (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1992).

[5] The percentile range denotes the different protocols employed by researchers.  See M. J. Dill & E. S. Salsberg, “The complexities of physician supply and demand: projections through 2025,” Association of American Medical College, 2008 (http://www.innovationlabs.com/pa_future/1/background_docs/AAMC%20Complexities%20of%20physician%20demand,%202008.pdf); J. M. Colwill, et al., Will generalist physician supply meet demands of an increasing and aging population?  Health Affairs, 27:w232-w241, 2008;  and S. M. Petterson, et al., “Projecting US primary care physician workforce needs:  2010-2025,” Ann. Fam. Med., 10: 503-509, 2012.

[6] See the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, “Facts about . . . rural physicians” (http://www.shepscenter.unc.edu/rural/pubs/finding_brief/phy.html ) and J. D. Gazewood, et al., “Beyond the horizon: the role of academic health centers in improving the health of rural communities,” Acad. Med., 81:793-797, 2006.  In all, the federal government has designated 5,848 geographical areas HPSAs in need of primary medical care (http://datawarehouse.hrsa.gov/factSheetNation.aspx).

[7] These non-immigrant visa waivers, authorized since 1994 by the Physicians for Underserved Areas Act (the “Conrad State 30” Program), allow foreign-trained physicians who provide primary care in underserved communities for at least three years to waive the two-hear home residence requirement.  That is, these physicians do not have to return to their native countries for at least two years prior to applying for permanent residence or an immigration visa.  On the negative impact of this program on health equity and, inter alia, the global fight against HIV and AIDS, see V. Patel, “Recruiting doctors from poor countries: the great brain robbery?, BMJ, 327:926-928, 2003; F. Mullan, “The metrics of the physician brain drain,” New Engl. J. Med., 353:1810-1818, 2005; and N. Eyal & S. A. Hurst, “Physician brain drain:  can nothing be done?, Public Health Ethics, 1:180-192, 2008.

[8] See H. K. Rabinowitz, et al., “Medical school programs to increase the rural physician supply: a systematic review,” Acad. Med., 83:235-243, at 242:  “It is, therefore, unlikely that the graduation of rural physicians will be a high priority for most medical schools, unless specific regulations require this, or unless adequate financial resources are provided as incentives to support this mission.”

[9] U. Lehmann, “Mid-level health workers: the state of evidence on programmes, activities, costs and impact on health outcomes,” World Health Organization, 2008 (http://www.who.int/hrh/MLHW_review_2008.pdf).

[10] R. S. Hooker, “Federally employed physician assistants,” Mil. Med., 173:895-899, 2008.

[11] J. F. Cawley & R. S. Hooker, “Physician assistant role flexibility and career mobility,” JAAPA, 23:10, 2010.

[12] D. M. Brock, et al., “The physician assistant profession and military veterans,” Mil. Med., 176:197-203, 2011.

[13] N. Holt, “’Confusion’s masterpiece’:  the development of the physician assistant profession,” Bull. Hist. Med., 72:246-278, 1998; Brock, op cit., p. 197.

[14]H. K. Rabinowitz, et al., “Critical factors  for designing programs to increase the supply and retention of rural primary care physicians,” JAMA, 286:1041-48, 2001; H. K. Rabinowitz, et al., “The relationship between entering medical students’ backgrounds and career plans and their rural practice outcomes three decades later,” Acad. Med., 87:493-497, 2012; H. K. Rabinowitz, et al., “The relationship between matriculating medical students’ planned specialties and eventual rural practice outcomes,” Acad. Med., 87:1086-1090, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Wanted: Primary Care Docs

“It will readily be seen that amid all these claimants for pathological territory there is scarcely standing-room left for the general practitioner.” – Andrew H. Smith, “The Family Physician (1888)

“The time when every family, rich or poor, had its own family physician, who knew the illnesses and health of its members and enjoyed the confidence of the upgrowing boys and girls during two or three generations, is gone.” – Abraham Jacobi, “Commercialized Medicine” (1910)

“More recent investigation shows that almost one-third of the towns of 1,000 or less throughout the United States which had physicians in 1914 had none in 1925. . . . it will be seen at a glance that the present generation of country doctors will have practically disappeared in another ten years.” – A. F. van Bibber, “The Swan Song of the Country Doctor” (1929)

“But complete medical care means more than the sum of the services provided by specialists, no matter how highly qualified.  It must include acceptance by one doctor of complete responsibility for the care of the patient and for the coordination of specialist, laboratory, and other services.  Within a generation, if the present situation continues, few Americans will have a personal physician do this for them.” – David D. Rutstein, “Do You Really Want a Family Doctor?” (1960)

“Whoever takes up the cause of primary care, one thing is clear: action is needed to calm the brewing storm before the levees break.” – Thomas Bodenheimer, “Primary Care – Will It Survive?” (2006)

“Potential access challenges”—that’s the current way of putting the growing shortage of primary care physicians (PCPs).  Euphemism melodious of care incommodious. Aggravated by the 33 million Americans shortly to receive health insurance through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 – health insurance leads to increased use of physicians – the chronic shortage of primary care physicians is seen as a looming crisis capable of dragging us back into the medical dark ages.  Medical school graduates continue to veer away from the less remunerative primary care specialties, opting for the  well-fertilized and debt-annihilating verdure of the subspecialties.  Where then will we find the 51,880 additional primary care physicians that, according to the most recent published projections,[1] we will need by 2025 to keep up with an expanding, aging, and more universally insured American population?

Dire forecasts about the imminent disappearance of general practitioners or family practitioners or, more recently, primary care physicians have been part of the medical-cum-political landscape for more than a century.  Now the bleak scenarios are back in vogue, and they are more frightening than ever, foretelling a consumer purgatory of lengthy visits to emergency rooms for private primary care – or worse.  Dr. Lee Green, chair of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta, offers this bleak vision of a near future where patients are barely able to see primary care physicians at all:

Primary care will be past saturated with wait times longer and will not accept any new patients.  There will be an increase in hospitalizations and increase in death rates for basic preventable things like hypertension that was not managed adequately.[2]

I have no intention of minimizing the urgency of a problem that, by all measurable indices, has grown worse in recent decades. But I do think that Dr. Green’s vision is, shall we say, over the top.  It is premised on a traditional model of primary care in which a single physician assumes responsibility for a single patient.  As soon as we look past the traditional model and take into account structural changes in the provision of primary care over the past four decades, we are able to forecast a different, if still troubling, future.

Beginning in the 1970s, and picking up steam in the 1980s and 90s, primary care medicine was enlarged by mid-level providers (physician assistants, nurse practitioners, psychiatric nurses, and clinical social workers) who, in many locales, have absorbed the traditional functions of primary care physicians.  The role of these providers in American health care will only increase with implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the innovative health delivery systems it promotes as solutions to the crisis in healthcare.

I refer specifically to the Act’s promotion of “Patient-Centered Medical Homes” (PCMHs) and “Accountable Care Organizations” (ACOs), both of which involve a collaborative melding of roles in the provision of primary care.  Both delivery systems seek to tilt the demographic and economic balance among medical providers back in the direction of primary care and, in the process, to render medical care more cost-effective through the use of electronic information systems, evidence-based care (especially the population-based management of chronic illnesses), and performance measurement and improvement.  To these ends, the new delivery systems equate primary care with “team-based care, in which physicians share responsibility with nurses, care coordinators, patient educators, clinical pharmacists, social workers, behavioral health specialists, and other team members.”[3]  The degree to which the overarching goals of these new models – reduced hospital admissions and readmissions and more integrated, cost-effective management of chronic illnesses – can be achieved will be seen in the years ahead.  But it is clear that these developments, propelled by the Accountable Care Act and the Obama administration’s investment of $19 billion to stimulate the use of information technology in medical practice, all point to the diminished role of the all-purpose primary care physician (PCP).

So we are entering a brave new world in which mid-level providers, all working under the supervision of generalist physicians in ever larger health systems, will assume an increasing role in primary care.  Indeed, PCMHs and ACOs, which attempt to redress the crisis in primary care, will probably have the paradoxical effect of relegating the traditional “caring” aspects of the doctor-patient relationship to nonphysician members of the health care team.  The trend away from patient-centered care on the part of physicians is already discernible in the technical quality objectives (like mammography rates) and financial goals of ACOs that increasingly pull primary care physicians away from relational caregiving.

The culprit here is time.  ACOs, for example, may direct PCPs to administer depression scales and fall risk assessments to all Medicare patients, the results of which must be recorded in the electronic record along with any “intervention” initiated.  In all but the largest health systems (think Kaiser Permanente), such tasks currently fall to the physician him- or herself.  The new delivery systems do not provide ancillary help for such tasks, which makes it harder still for overtaxed PCPs to keep on schedule and connect with their patients in more human, and less assessment-driven, ways.[4]

So, yes, we’re going to need many more primary care physicians, but perhaps not as many as Petterson and his colleagues project.  Their extrapolations from “utilization data” – the number of  PCPs we will will need to accommodate the number of office visits made by a growing, aging, and better insured American population at a future point in time – do not incorporate the growing reality of team-administered primary care.  The latter already includes patient visits to physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and clinical social workers and is poised to include electronic office “visits” via the Internet.   For health services researchers, this kind of  distributed care suggests the reasonableness of equating “continuity of care” with “site continuity” (the place where we receive care) rather than “provider continuity” (the personal physician who provides that care).

Of course, we are still left with the massive and to date intractable problem of the uneven distribution of primary care physicians (or primary care “teams”) across the population.  Since the 1990s, attempts to pull PCPs to those areas where they are most needed have concentrated on the well-documented financial disincentives associated with primary care, especially in underserved, mainly rural areas .  Unsurprisingly, these disincentives evoke financial solutions for newly trained physicians who agree to practice primary care for at least a few years in what the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration designates “Health Professional Shortage Areas” (HPSAs).  The benefit package currently in place includes medical school scholarships, loan repayment plans, and, beginning in 1987, a modest bonus payment program administered by Medicare Part B carriers.[5]

The most recent and elaborate proposal to persuade primary care physicians to go where they are most needed adopts a two-pronged approach.  It calls for creation of a National Residency Exchange that would determine the optimal number of  residencies in different medical specialties for each state, and then “optimally redistribute”  residency assignments state by state in the direction of underrepresented specialties, especially primary care specialties in underserved communities.  This would be teamed with a federally funded primary care loan repayment program, administered by Medicare, that would gradually repay participants’ loans over the course of their first eight years of post-residency primary care practice in an HPSA.[6]

But this and like-minded schemes will come to naught if medical students are not drawn to primary care medicine in the first place.  There was such a “draw” in the late 60s and early 70s; it followed the creation of “family practice” as a residency-based specialty and developed in tandem with social activist movements of the period.  But it did not last into the 80s and left many of its proponents disillusioned.  Despite the financial incentives already in place (including those provided by the federal government’s National Health Service Corps[7]) and the existence of “rural medicine” training programs,[8] there is no sense of gathering social forces that will pull a new generation of medical students into primary care.  Nor is there any reason to suppose that the dwindling number of medical students whose sense of calling leads to careers among the underserved will be drawn to the emerging world of primary care in which the PCP assumes an increasingly administrative (and data-driven) role as coordinator of a health care team.

In truth, I am skeptical that financial packages, even if greatly enlarged, can overcome the specialist mentality that emerged after World War II and is long-entrenched in American medicine.  Financial incentives assume that medical students would opt for primary care if not for financial disincentives that make it harder for them to do so.  Now recent literature suggests that financial realities do play an important role in the choice of specialty.[9]  But there is more to choice of specialty than debt management and long-term earning power.  Specialism is not simply a veering away from generalism; it is a pathway to medicine with its own intrinsic satisfactions, among which are prestige, authority, procedural competence, problem-solving acuity, and considerations of lifestyle. These satisfactions are at present vastly greater in specialty medicine than those inhering in primary care.  This is why primary care educators, health economists, and policy makers place us (yet again) on the brink of crisis.

Financial incentives associated with primary care are important and probably need to be enlarged far beyond the status quo.  But at the same time, we need to think outside the box in a number of ways.  To wit, we need to rethink the meaning of generalism and its role in medical practice (including specialty practice).  And we need to find and nurture (and financially support) more medical students who are drawn to primary care.  And finally, and perhaps most radically, we need to rethink the three current primary care specialties (pediatrics, general internal medicine, and family medicine) and the relationships among them.  Perhaps this long-established tripartite division is no longer the best way to conceptualize primary care and to draw a larger percentage of medical students to it.  I will offer my thoughts on these knotty issues in blog essays to follow.


[1] S. M. Petterson, et al., “Projecting US primary care physician workforce needs:  2010-2025,” Ann. Fam. Med., 10:503-509, 2012.

[2] Quoted in Nisha Nathan, “Doc Shortage Could Crash Health Care,” online at http://abcnews.go.com/Health/doctor-shortage-healthcare-crash/story?id=17708473.

[3] D. R. Rittenhouse & S. M. Shortell, “The patient-centered medical home:  will it stand the test of health reform?, JAMA, 301:22038-2040, 2009, at 2039.  Among recent commentaries, see further D. M. Berwick, “making good on ACOs’ promise – the final rule for the Medicare shared savings program,” New Engl. J. Med., 365:1753-1756, 2011; D. R. Rittenhouse, et al., “Primary care and accountable care – two essential elements of delivery-system reform,” New Engl. J. Med., 361:2301-2303, 2009, and E. Carrier, et al., “Medical homes:  challenges in translating theory into practice,” Med. Care, 47:714-722, 2009.

[4] I am grateful to my brother, David Stepansky, M.D., whose medical group participates in both PCMH and ACO entities, for these insights on the impact of participation on PCPs who are not part of relatively large health  systems.

[5]E.g., R. G. Petersdorf, “Financing medical education: a universal ‘Berry plan’  for medical students,” New Engl. J. Med., 328, 651, 1993;  K. M. Byrnes, “Is there a primary care doctor in the house? the legislation needed to address a national shortage,” Rutgers Law Journal, 25: 799, 806-808, 1994.  On the Medicare Incentive Payment Program for physicians practicing in designated HPSAs – and the inadequacy  of the 10% bonus system now in place – see L. R. Shugarman & D. O. Farley, “Shortcomings in Medicare bonus payments for physicians in underserved areas,” Health Affairs, 22:173-78, 2003 at 177 (online at http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/22/4/173.full.pdf+html) and S. Gunselman, “The Conrad ‘state-30’ program:  a temporary relief to the U.S. shortage of physicians or a contributor to the brain drain,”  J. Health & Biomed. Law, 5:91-115, 2009, at 107-108.

[6]G. Cheng, “The national residency exchange: a proposal to restore primary care in an age of microspecialization,” Amer. J. Law & Med., 38:158-195, 2012.

[7] The NHSC, founded in 1970, provides full scholarship support for medical students who agree to serve as PCPs in high-need, underserved locales, with one year of service for each year of support provided by the government.  For medical school graduates who have already accrued debt, the program provides student loan payment for physicians who commit to at least two years of service at an approved site. Descriptions of the scholarship and loan repayment program are available at http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/

[8] See the rationale for rural training programs set forth in a document of the Association of American Medical Colleges, “Rural medicine programs aim to reverse physician shortage in outlying regions,” online at http://www.aamc.org/newsroom/reporter/nov04/rural.htm.  One of the best such programs, Jefferson Medical College’s Physician Shortage Area Program, is described and its graduates profiled in H. K. Rabinowitz, Caring for the country:  family doctors in small rural towns (NY: Springer, 2004).

[9] See especially the 2003 white paper by the AMA’s taskforce on student debt, online at http://www.ama-assn.org/ama1/pub/upload/mm/15/debt_report.pdf and, more recently, P. A. Pugno, et al., “Results of the 2009 national resident matching program: family medicine,” Fam. Med., 41:567-577, 2009 and H. S. Teitelbaum, et al., “Factors affecting specialty choice among osteopathic medical students, Acad. Med., 84:718-723, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Primary Care/Primarily Caring (II)

“Procedure skills are essential to the definition of a family physician,” announced the Group on Hospital Medicine and Procedural Training of the Society for Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) in a Group Consensus Statement published in 2009.  And what’s more, “Provision of procedural care in a local setting by a family physician can add value in continuity of care, accessibility, convenience, and cost-effectiveness without sacrificing quality” (Fam. Med., 398:403, 2009).  True enough.  But does this normative claim square with reality?

The fact is that primary care physicians (PCPs) of today, with rare exceptions, cannot be proceduralists in the manner of my father’s postwar generation, much less the generations that preceded it.  Residency training has to date failed to provide them with a set of common procedural skills.  As of 2006, the College of Family Physicians of Canada did not even evaluate procedural skills on the Certification Examination in Family Medicine (Can. Fam. Physician, 52:561, 2006).  Unsurprisingly, many family physicians, in Canada and elsewhere, do not find themselves competent  “in the skills that they themselves see as being essential for family practice training” (Can. Fam. Physician, 56:e300, 2010; Aust. Fam. Physician, 28:1211, 1999; BMC Fam. Practice, 7:18, 2006).

Nor is there an easy way of remedying the procedural lacunae in primary care medicine.  Efforts to infuse family medicine residency programs with procedural training run up against the reality, ceded by educators, that “Many privileging committees currently use specialty certification and/or a minimum number of procedures performed . . . to award privileges to perform procedures independently” (Fam. Med., 398:402, 2009).  In one recent study, Canadian family medicine residents who took “procedural skills workshops” during their residencies were found no more likely than other residents to employ these skills when they entered private practice (Can. Fam. Physician, 56:e296, 2010).  More than a decade earlier, a procedurally gifted family physician in rural south Georgia reported a case series of 751 colonoscopies out of a series of 1,048 performed over a nine-year period.  The practitioner, who acquired all his endoscopic training (including 80 supervised procedures) and experience while in solo practice, had results that were fully equal to those of experienced gastroenterologists; indeed, his results were exemplary.  Still, he experienced difficulty obtaining colonoscopic privileges at a small community hospital in his own town (J. Fam. Practice, 44:473, 1997).  My own family physician performed sigmoidoscopy on me in the early 90s.  A decade later I asked her if she was still doing the procedure.  “No,” she replied, because she was no longer covered for it by insurers.  “And it’s too bad,” she added, “because I liked doing them.”  I recently inspected a simple skin tag on the neck of one of my sons.  “Why don’t you have your family doctor whisk it off?” I asked.  “Actually,” he replied, “she referred me to a plastic surgeon.”

It is the same story almost everywhere.  The “almost” refers to rural training programs which, especially in Canada, produce family physicians with significantly greater procedural competence than their urban colleagues (Can. Fam. Physician, 52:623, 2006).  This tends to be true in the U.S. as well, especially in those rural areas where access to specialists is still limited.  But even rural family physicians here have been found to vary greatly in procedural know-how, with a discernible trend away from the use of diagnostic instruments.   In the mid-90s, a random sample of 403 rural FPs in eight midwestern and western states found that 57% performed sigmoidoscopy, but only 20% performed colposcopy (examination of vaginal and cervical tissue with a colposcope) and fewer than 5% performed nasopharyngoscopy (examination of the nasal passages and pharynx with a laryngoscope) (J. Fam. Practice, 38:479, 1994).  In his illuminating Afterword to The Last Family Doctor, my brother David Stepansky recounts the trend away from procedural competence during his internal medicine residency of the 70s:

“. . . internal medicine residents had traditionally received routine training in certain invasive procedures such as spinal taps, thoracenteses (to remove fluid from the chest cavity) and paracenteses (to remove fluid from the abdomen), and insertion of central intravenous catheters.  Although I was trained in these procedures and had some opportunity to perform them, my experience was limited, compared to the training of internal medicine residents who preceded me by only a few years.  There arose the general understanding that such technical procedures were best left to those who performed them frequently and well – a concept that is now broadly applied throughout healthcare.”

Efforts to upgrade the procedural competence of PCPs have an air of remediation about them.  After all, in the United States the residency-based “family practice” specialty came into being in 1969, but the development of a core list of procedures that all family medicine residents should be able to perform awaited the efforts of the STFM’s Group on Hospital Medicine and Procedural Training in 2007.  And this effort, in turn, followed a spate of research over the past decade from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and The Netherlands suggesting that “the procedural skill set expected of new family or general practice physicians is not being adequately taught in residency or registrar programs” (Can. Fam. Physician, 56:e298, 2010).  Finally, these efforts run up against the simple reality that the majority of overworked PCPs are content to refer their patients to specialists for procedures, and that the majority of patients expect to have procedures performed by specialists.  Implicitly if not explicitly, patients have come to embrace the difference between procedural training (and the experience that comes from applying a procedure occasionally in a generalist setting) and the mastery associated with routine use of a procedure in a specialty or hospital setting.  Exceptions to the rule, like the eminently competent FP colonoscopist mentioned above or the skilled FP proceduralists profiled in Howard Rabinowitz’s Caring for the Country: Family Doctors in Small Rural Towns (2004) or the dwindling number of FPs who simply make it their business to perform procedures, serve to underscore the rule.

“The history of medicine,” declaimed the internist W. R. Houston in 1937, “is a history of the dynamic power of the relationship between doctor and patient.” Houston’s address to the American College of Physicians, which, in published form, is the classic article “The Doctor Himself as a Therapeutic Agent” (Ann. Int. Med., 11:1416, 1938) left no doubt about the kind of interactions that powered the doctor’s agency.  “What the patient most imperatively demands from the doctor,” he wrote, “is, as it always was, action.”  And action, in Houston’s sense of the term, always referred back to “the line of procedure,” to the act of doing things to and for the patient.  The performance of a medical procedure, as Houston well knew, made the doctor the representative of modern scientific medicine.  It was the doctor’s calming scientific authority channeled through his or her sensory endowment, especially sight and touch.  We now know more:  That the laying on of hands, even if mediated by medical instruments, activates contact touch, an inborn biological pleasure that, through symbolic elaboration, may come to represent affection and strength (Arch. Int. Med., 153:929, 1993).   Psychoanalysts would say that a basic physiological pleasure is amplified by an idealizing transference.

Houston, of course, delivered his address before World War II and the growth of specialization that accompanied it and followed it.  In America of the 30s, patients might still expect their personal physicians to know and to implement the “line of procedure,” whatever the ailment.  What are we to make of his dictum in our own time?  Absent the kind of procedural glue that bonded GPs and patients of the past, how can today’s PCPs come to know their patients and provide physicianly caring that approximates the procedurally grounded caring of their forebears?  Contemporary PCPs not only manage their patients; they also care for them.  But, given the paucity of procedural interventions,  of actually doing things to their patients’ bodies, what more can they do to make these patients feel well cared for?  Educators have proposed different ways of reinvigorating doctor-patient relationships, and I will address them in future postings.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.