Author and Consultant in Health Care, Retired CEO University of Maryland Medical Center
Stephen C. Schimpff, MD
MAY 21, 2015 – Primary care physicians (PCPs) have too little time per patient which means too many referrals to specialists, too little time listening and thinking, no time to delve into the stress or emotional causes of many symptoms and substantial frustration by PCP and patient alike. It also means higher total costs of care.
In my last post, I described a patient with a straight forward if unusual symptom who was bounced from specialist to specialist at great expense, with no one offering a diagnosis, with no resolution of her symptoms and with no physician ever exploring the actual underlying causes of her symptom – stress related to a long ago family issue. Why did this happen? Because the PCP had only 15 minutes, not enough time to listen and to think and from there delve into her psyche.
Why so little time? The short answer is the insurance system, attempting to manage costs through price controls while continually added to the physician’s burden with rules and regulations. Medicare has for years set a low reimbursement rate for regular office visits to the primary care physician. Commercial insurance always follows Medicare’s lead and has done likewise. Reimbursement rates have remained fairly steady for a decade or more (Medicare has very recently begun to raise rates a bit as a result of the Affordable Care Act) but office costs have risen each year. Overhead includes not just the nurse and receptionist but also the billing and coding people, accounting and legal needs, malpractice and disability insurance, health care insurance for the staff, supplies and rent and utilities for the office. Add in the requirements for “meaningful use” of the EHR along with compilation of quality indicator. All very time consuming. With costs rising and income steady, the PCP tries to “make it up with volume.” This means seeing more patients per day, usually about 24-25, often even more. In order to see that many, the PCP has generally stopped seeing his or her patients in the hospital or ER and has shortened the time per visit – most visits being about 10-12 minutes of actual “face time” with the patient.
Fixing the Primary Care Crisis: Reclaiming the Patient-Doctor Relationship and Returning Healthcare Decisions to You and Your Doctor Kindle Edition
This is enough time for a strep throat, a quick blood pressure medication check or possibly to diagnose and treat Lyme disease. But it is not enough time to deal with a more subtle problem like the patient described in the last post experienced. It is not time to explore family issues, personal stress or anxiety that so often lead to or accompany symptoms and sickness.
The situation is compounded when the PCP has a patient with multiple chronic illnesses who is taking multiple prescription medications. Chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart failure, chronic lung disease, kidney failure or multiple sclerosis by their nature are difficult to manage, persist for the patient’s lifetime (some cancers excepted) and are inherently expensive to treat. These patients need very close attention and often need the benefit of a team approach to care. The diabetic patient for example may need an endocrine consult at some point, a podiatrist, an ophthalmologist, a nutritionist and an exercise physiologist, to say the least. But any team needs a quarterback and this is or should be the primary care physician. But here again, care coordination by the PCP requires time, the one thing the PCP most lacks in today’s reimbursement environment. The result is fragmented chronic illness care, disjointed care and care that is much more expensive than it needs to be. From a total healthcare system perspective, this is critical because chronic illnesses consume 75 – 85% of all claims paid by insurers.
But with little time to listen and think, the action step of many PCPs, as with the patient described last time, is to send the patient to a specialist. Indeed, according to an article in the Archives of Internal Medicine, about nine percent of all visits to PCPs result in a specialist referral, far far higher than truly necessary. This is up from about five per cent a decade earlier; 41 million referrals per year then compared to 105 million in 2010. Something needs to be done. The push for accountable care organizations, medical homes, population health and a switch from fee for service to a salaried or capitated system are noble but unless the PCP is given time and enough of it, these changes – no matter their apparent utility – will prove valueless.
Meanwhile, fewer and fewer medical school graduates choose to enter primary care. They are smart and see that PCPs are very busy and very frustrated. They know that given the PCP’s average income it will take many years to pay off their high educational debt load.
It is a real primary care crisis, one that I discuss fully in “Fixing The Primary Care Crisis – Reclaiming The Patient – Doctor Relationship And Returning Healthcare Decisions To You And Your Doctor.”