Simple Steps Can Protect, Expand Primary Care Capacity

Article excerpt

Alan Sager, PhD, is a professor of health policy and management and director of the health reform program at the Boston University School of Public Health. He recently spoke with Medical Economics Editor-in-Chief Lois A. Bowers, MA, about how the need for more primary care can be addressed.

Q: One of your areas of interest is preserving physician services in the healthcare system. What are some of the biggest challenges in that area?

A: Primary care often resembles the weather in that we talk about it a lot, but we don't do much that's effective to either preserve or expand the capacity and availability of primary caregivers in the United States.

Internationally, when we compare our country with the average rich democracy, the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we seem to have only about half as many primary care physicians (PCPs) per 1,000 [citizens] as is found in the rest of the world. We're at about 0.8 PCPs per 1,000. That's a pretty dramatic number that's received fer less attention than it deserves.

The great share of people who make decisions are not yet worried about their own personal access and their families' access to primary care. They're typically people who either know a lot of physicians or know people who know a lot of physicians who are able to make a phone call and perhaps help an adult or child gain access to a family doctor. They're not aware of how many people lack that access and don't have someone they can call.

Q: What are some of the other challenges?

A: We may not realize how easy it is, in some respects, to take substantial steps to protect and expand primary care capacity.

Let's say we wanted, hypothetically, to obtain 300,000 full-timeequivalent PCPs in the United States, which would drop panel size to about 1,000 patients per practicing patientcare PCP And let's say we pay them $300,000 each after practice expenses but before taxes.

That sounds like a lot of money, but it's $90 billion, just over 3% of healthcare spending, or less than 6 or 8 months' increase in healthcare spending. Other countries aim to spend close to 10% of their health dollars on primary care.

Rhode Island- interestingly, the only state with a healthcare commissioner-seems to have been pushing private payers toward expanding the share of their revenue going to primary care. That's a concrete step that could be taken, and it doesn't require much money.

This approach really is very different from the ideas we keep recycling, such as loan forgiveness. Let's say a person comes out of a residency with $200,000 of medical school debt That's only about 1 year's salary differential between a physician in general internal medicine or family practice and an interventional cardiologist or diagnostic radiologist or lots of surgeons.

Too many people assume that the salary differentials are products of legitimate free market sources and that if the market throws up those dollar figures, we can do little but respect them. If there were a functioning free market in this area of healthcare, I might say the same thing, but there isn't And sadly, there's not much of a free market in most of healthcare.

Given the cost of making primary care much more financially stable and attractive, the nonlegitimacy of the current salary differentials, and the enormous gap between the United States and other countries as to the availability of primary care, and also given the critical importance of primary care in preserving access, coordinating care, ensuring continuity and appropriateness of care, and also holding down costs, it's remarkable that we've been proceeding for so many decades without taking effective action.

Q: What can PCPs do to emphasize their value in the healthcare system?

A: A brief conversation with every potential influential patient would help activate the necessary political and financial support And maybe they could have a handout available that summarizes key points, an international comparison, how much good primary care with a panel size of 1,000 would really cost, and how hard it is to provide good primary care, especially to panels of 2,500 to 3,000this is particularly true in the states that are expanding coverage under the 2010 reform law to lots of previously uninsured people. …