Friday, January 2, 2009

Student Debt, Resident Hours, and Primary Care Redux

HAPPY NEW YEAR! May 2009 be a big improvement!

The December 18, 2008 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine includes Perspectives on 3 topics that have been previously addressed on this blog: Medical student debt (Dec 14), resident duty-hours (Dec 3, 9), and the future of primary care (Dec 11).

The piece on “Medical Student Debt – Is there a Limit?” by Robert Steinbrook presents data on the extraordinary rise in tuition, and debt, among medical students, most surprisingly in the public medical schools. “For the current academic year, tuition, fees, and health insurance at private medical schools range from $15,278 (for Texas residents) or $28,378 (for non-residents) at Baylor University to $51,969 at Tufts University in Massachusetts and $52,236 at Temple University (for nonresidents of Pennsylvania – state residents are charged at $43,232.” While tuition rates at private medical schools are generally higher than at public, the non-resident tuition at public schools is about the same as that of the privates, and the rate of rise (percent change) in the last 10 years at public schools has far exceeded that at private schools (100% vs 50% increase). Indebtedness ranged from an average (high is different) of $80,000 to $163,000 at public schools, and $70,000 to $182,000 at private schools. Some schools give significant tuition scholarships, but others are more challenged: Stanford’s endowment allows it to give a far larger number of scholarships relative to loans than does, say Drexel. More important, the article points out that the high debt burden may discourage lower-income students from applying to medical school, and to enter specialties with higher income potentials. “It is not surprising that a recent analysis showed a ‘strong direct correlation’ between higher mean salary in a specialty, such as orthopedic surgery or radiology, and the percentage of residency positions filled by US graduates.” The piece says that there is no easy solution, and probably there is not. But most countries have very low medical school tuitions, but require national service of their graduates.

Revisiting Duty Hour Limits – IOM Recommendations for patient safety and resident education” by John Iglehart, discusses that topic in a balanced way. It points out the acknowledgment in the IOM report that “Although some might propose further reductions in total duty hours, the report notes, ‘evidence suggests it is an indirect and inefficient approach given the moderate correlation that exists between resident duty hours and sleep time.’” Igelhart also notes that “the 2003 limits on duty hours have resulted in an increase in handoffs of patient care between physicians – transitions associated with increased risks to patient safety.” I have discussed this at length, but I did note that this article includes a table with a recommendation I had missed – that internal and external moonlight be counted against the 80-hour per week limits. I have no difficulty with that conceptually, as it makes perfect sense – what is the point of limiting work hours in the residency if residents can moonlight for extra money in an unrestricted fashion? – but I wonder about the legal ability of program directors to restrict the moonlighting activities of their residents in their off hours.

The Future of Primary Care – the Community Responds” involves a followup to a series of opinion pieces and a roundtable discussion with Drs. Thomas Bodenheimer, Barbara Starfield, Katharine Treadway, Allan Goroll, and Thomas H. Lee that appeared in the November 13, 2008 issue. The comments, and responses from the roundtable participants, are salient and generally useful. Several writers noted the role of physician assistants, and one (Paul Lombardo) states that “Patients, and the U.S. health care system as a whole, would be better served if the content of and level of primary care education were better matched to the needs of patients. The physician assistant (PA) model of medical education, with its emphasis on physician-physician assistant teams, needs to be expanded.”

These are all thorny, and not unrelated, issues. What is the relationship between resident work hours and physician’s assistants? Well, someone has to do the work. Since residents, even with the 80-hour restriction, work twice as many hours as do physician’s assistants, for about half the salary, and have a greater scope of practice, it would be incredibly expensive for hospitals to replace resident labor with that of physician’s assistants, not to mention physicians. As hospitals complain about the “cost” of resident education, this needs to be kept in mind; they are much better at accounting the cost than the benefit. Even if a hospital closes its residencies because it assesses the costs are greater than the benefit, this usually includes the fact that the residents care for many medically indigent patients, and you can be sure that the hospitals are planning to no longer care for them at all, not to pay someone else to do it. This, of course, again decreases access for the most needy.

I have repeatedly said that the nucleus of a solution is a comprehensive national health program, which includes a single-payer and a system that is tasked with ensuring the health and access to quality health care of all Americans. With such a system, addressing issues such as resident work hours, medical student debt, and the composition of the physician (and NP and physician assistant) workforce could be feasible; without it, they all remain insoluble because they all depend upon each other.

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