Tinetti, Fried, and Boyd, writing in JAMA June 20, 2012, discuss “Designing health care for the most common chronic condition – multimorbidity.” They note that adult patients with only a single chronic disease are the exception (e.g., only 17% of people with coronary disease have that as their only chronic condition) and the rate of multi-morbidity increases with aging. However, the medical system is organized around individual diseases, both in terms of reimbursement (based upon International Classification of Diseases, 9th Edition, or ICD-9, codes) and in terms of specialty structure. Thus, cardiologists care for heart disease (only), oncologists for cancer (only), endocrinologists for diabetes and thyroid disease, etc.
Moreover, they observe that even more recent efforts to reward quality have been single-disease focused, with metrics related to acute myocardial infarction (heart attack), pneumonia, and particular surgical procedures. This is added to the fact that these criteria focus on hospitalized patients, rather than on efforts to keep them well. They state that “To align with the clinical reality of multimorbidity, care should evolve from a disease orientation to a patient goal orientation, focused on maximizing the health goals of individual patients with unique sets of risks, conditions, and priorities.” This is a long way of saying care should be patient-centered. They also say that “The process for assigning responsibility for providing clinical care also needs redesign, perhaps beginning with a systematic process for determining which clinician should have primary responsibility for helping patients make decisions,” which is a long way of saying people need generalists, or primary care physicians.
This group does not want to call them generalists, though. Perhaps this is because they are from Yale, a school well-known for its research and for its high-tech tertiary and quarternary care capability, but woefully weak in training physicians to provide general, or primary care. It doesn’t even have a Family Medicine department, despite the fact that this is the specialty that provides the largest number of primary care physicians, so these authors are from Internal Medicine. They have suggested that such physicians be called comprehensivists rather than generalists because the latter term “fails to capture the breadth of skills and expertise required” to care for patients with multiple comorbidities.
While this article suggests nothing new (for example, I have addressed these issues several times, including Primary Care: What takes so much time? And how are we paying for it?, May 21, 2010 and Primary Care’s Image: A Problem?, November 17, 2009), it is good that it keeps these issues on the table. Providers, particularly hospitals, want to be paid for metrics that are easily identifiable and relatively easy to achieve. Students choosing careers often want to pick a field in which they can feel that they are masters of a limited field of knowledge.Patients sometimes want to get help for a specific problem from a particular specialist. But everyone is better served if there is coordination of care and decisions regarding the care of one condition take the others into consideration. This means that medications which have negative interactions or countervailing effects are less likely to be prescribed. It means that the difficult decision about whether or not to have a particular surgical procedure is taken in the context of all of the health issues confronting the person. It means that decisions about interventions in desperate situations or at end of life are made wisely, and in full possession of the available information, without bias toward treatment of a particular disease regardless of its impact on others.
In a recent “Doctor’s Blog” on the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) “doc2doc” site [disclaimer: I also blog at this site] one doctor presented their thoughts on “Is prevention ALWAYS better than cure?”. I do not agree with all of Dr. Lush’s points, and am not sure I even understand them all, but that “…as we get older the risks of many diseases increases so that many patients end up on a cocktail of preventative drugs, probably 2 antihypertensives, aspirin, beta blocker, statins, anti-inflammatory medications, diuretic, asthma treatment, type 2 diabetic treatments, analgesics, etc etc.” is a fact. Many of these medications can be for either prevention or treatment or both (remember the concepts of secondary and tertiary prevention, so that treatment of one condition – say high blood pressure – can be prevention of another – say heart attack), but they often lead to patients saying “too much!” Worse than that, some may have opposing effects – the anti-inflammatory medication you take for your arthritis can lead to GI bleeding and kidney failure. The narcotics you take for your pain, in addition to the more well known negatives of addiction, cause constipation so serious it may well be the source of even worse symptoms.
Even the presence of a National Health Service is not sufficient. A study from Scotland published recently in the Lancet, “Epidemiology of multimorbidity and implications for health care, research, and medical education: a cross-sectional study”, demonstrates an extremely high rate of multi-morbidity in that county, with much higher rates in poorer communities. The “[O]nset of multimorbidity occurred 10–15 years earlier in people living in the most deprived areas compared with the most affluent”. The authors conclude that their findings “…challenge the single-disease framework by which most health care, medical research, and medical education is configured. A complementary strategy is needed, supporting generalist clinicians to provide personalised, comprehensive continuity of care, especially in socioeconomically deprived areas.”
Of course, unlike Britain, which has a National Health Service, the US does not cover everyone. A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) “health reform subsidy calculator”, cited by Don McCanne in his Quote of the Day, demonstrates the amazing out-of-pocket costs for health insurance that come with slight incremental increases in family income, and would be mitigated, although not eliminated, by the Affordable Care Act. This creates a real difference in our two health cultures, because many people in the US do not seek care because of the financial barriers, and then only for acute episodes.
In terms of having a supply of physicians who can fill the role of caring for multiple morbidities, Britain has much more extensive primary care base than the US. It is possible that their system has as great a risk as ours of generalists not being sufficiently “comprehensivist”; our system, with more hospitalists, is moving in the British direction of having primary care doctors who do not follow their patients into the hospital. But in the US, we are without a sufficient number or percent of primary care doctors altogether.
The reality is, as I have often observed before, is that a comprehensive national health insurance system is a necessary, if not sufficient, component of a plan to actually ensure health. Two other major components are also necessary. The first is addressing the social determinants of health, which are largely associated with class/socioeconomic status, and the second is having an adequate primary care base, And, while, as the Scottish study indicates, the national health service in Britain does not guarantee either, it does provide a vehicle for addressing the second and mitigates the impact of the first.
The absence of such a system in the US makes the problems of an inadequate primary care workforce and the impact of socioeconomic disparities much worse.
 Tinetti ME, Fried TR, Boyd CM, “Designing health care for the most common chronic condition – multimorbidity”, JAMA 20Jun2012;307(23):2493-4.