Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Reinventing Primary Care: Themes and Challenges

My May 27 entry, Universal Coverage and Primary Care: The US needs both, focused on one article from the May 2010 issue of the journal Health Affairs. That article, by Barbara Starfield, (“Reinventing Primary Care: Lessons from Canada for the United States”) was just one of 65 articles in this issue that addressed the topic of “reinventing primary care”. The articles cover the gamut of the history of primary care, the problem of undersupply of primary care providers, proposals for increasing the number of primary care providers, analyses (such as Dr. Starfield’s) of the health systems of other nations’ that are based on primary care, proposals for how the organization and structure of primary care practices need to be changed, and case studies of models of practices and demonstration projects that have implicated innovative approaches to primary care delivery. Many of these practice changes are contained under the rubric of the Primary Care Medical Home (PCMH), which is also the abbreviation for the related Patient Centered Medical Home. Indeed, the Patient Centered Primary Care Collaborative (PCPCC), a coalition of major employers, insurers, providers, pharmaceutical and device makers, and consumers, uses both “PC”s in its name (one hesitates to say that it is thus very PC!)

One of the articles is in fact “The multistakeholder movement for primary care renewal and reform”, by Paul Grundy, et. al., specifically addresses and discusses this collaborative, as well as its proposals for change in the entire structure of the primary care delivery system. Grundy, who is vice-president for global health reform of IBM, is president of the collaborative. It has brought together these various stakeholders in recognition not only of the overwhelming data that shows systems that are built upon primary care are more efficient, more cost-effective, and lead to better health outcomes, but on the actual experience of IBM and other multinational companies. These companies find that their health costs, and the health (and thus lack of time off for illness) of their workers is dramatically lower in countries in which the health system is built upon a primary care base. It is actively involved in educating, advocating, and demonstrating the importance of developing such a base in the US.

Many of the other articles in the journal address changes that need to happen to allow the small (and, as I have pointed out, likely to stay too small even if there is a significant increase in production from our current paltry 16%) number of primary care providers to care for larger panels of patients, while maintaining or increasing quality of care, patient satisfaction, and efficiency. Two of these are co-written by Thomas Bodenheimer, MD, ‘Primary Care: Current Problems And Proposed Solutions”, by Bodenheimer and H.H. Pham, and “Transforming Primary Care: From Past Practice To The Practice Of The Future”, by D. Margolius and Bodenheimer. Another perspective, more from that of the individual physician than the overall health system, is Lawrence P. Casalino’s contribution, “A Martian’s Prescription For Primary Care: Overhaul The Physician’s Workday”

What is striking about these articles in the similarity of their recommendations. The recurrent themes include the need for multi-disciplinary teams of health professionals who all play roles in caring for patients, and panels of patients. This goes beyond the simple “nurses doing callbacks” to patients before, or instead of, the physician. It means that nurses provide the care that they can, that pharmacists and psychologists and social workers all are part of the team, communicating with each other but often operating independently. Group visits are another theme; often people with the same (or, in fact, different) conditions can benefit from being seen in a group. This can be for a more formal didactic session of patient education about their condition by a nurse, or pharmacist, or health educator, or physical therapist, or physician, or medications, or other treatments, often combined with a great deal of person-to-person interaction. There is more to this than efficiency; people actually benefit from the fact of being in a group, of sharing experiences, and ideas, and successes and failures.

Another important and recurrent theme is that of physician-patient interactions that do not involve face-to-face contact, but rather phone calls or emails. Again, this is not just a matter of efficiency for the physician; patients often have concerns that can be successfully addressed by one of these other methods that do not involve them having to take off work, drive a long distance, look for parking, and wait in the waiting room. A physician can be far more effective, and interact with a much larger number of people, if an afternoon consists of seeing a few in person, a much larger number by telephone, and an even larger number by email; a number of products exist that provide not only secure email communication, but provide a structure for the patient to supply information that will help the doctor (or NP, or nurse, or whoever on the team is most appropriate) provide the greatest help.

In his article, Casalino lists five reasons why a physician should see someone in person:
“(1) for a first visit; (2) when it may be necessary to engage in some physical maneuver for diagnostic purposes—such as palpating the abdomen, listening to the heart, or performing a skin biopsy; (3) for specific therapeutic purposes, such as injecting a joint; (4) when the patient has problems for which lengthy discussion would be helpful; (5) when for psychological or emotional reasons it seems better to see the patient face-to-face; and (6) when face-to-face visits are necessary to build trust.”
These are very good, but I would simplify it even more: the physician should see the patient face-to-face when either the patient or the physician think it is important.

The effectiveness and satisfaction from increased phone calls substituting for visits was clear in the late 1990s when capitation, rather than fee-for-service, was a dominant mode of payment (of course, at that time the internet was not yet developed enough for most people to be using email). To reprise, and to improve upon that process will, obviously, require a reimbursement system that does not pay only for face-to-face physician visits. This is another common theme to many of the articles in this issue. It is also not happening in most places. It is, however, a sine qua non for such practice reorganization. And increasing the primary care supply.

Which of these themes is the most important: increasing the supply of primary care physicians, reorganizing practices to become true Patient Centered Medical homes, utilizing all of the strategies above and more, or restructuring the way health care is paid for? They are all important, all related, and all dependent upon each other for success. What is not addressed in most of the articles in this issue of Health Affairs, however, is arguably the most important: ensuring health coverage for everyone. The work of the Patient Centered Primary Care Collaborative may go a long way to having a more rational delivery system for those with access, but as long as the same old hands, in particular the insurance companies but also the drug and device makers, are part of the decision-making process, they are unlikely to come up with a plan that truly covers everyone, single-payer, “Medicare for All”, or any other rational system. And without that, all the primary care reform is not going to really work. It is not only a moral issue (although that should be enough!); it is that the cost, in terms of work hours lost, unnecessary suffering, direct dollars spent on diseases that have advanced too far because people have delayed care, and ultimately worse outcomes, is unsupportable and unsustainable.

We’ve passed PPACA. Now it’s time for real health reform.

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