0 The Primary Care Conundrum

The primary care conundrum:
We need more primary care doctors.
We treat primary care doctors relatively poorly, thus discouraging medical students from entering the field.

This issue has been one of the recurring themes in the discussion of health reform, and I have written about it often. People argue around the edges of the conversation:
·         It is not only primary care doctors that are relatively underpaid; so are many non-procedural specialists.
·         There is not going to be an increase in the payment to physicians, so higher-paid specialists are going to have to take less money.
·         It is not just about money; it is about lifestyle. Primary care doctors have to work too hard.
·         It is not just about money; it is about status. Primary care doctors have lower status.
·         It is not just about money; it is about intelligence. Primary care is just too easy.
·         It is not just about money; it is about unrealistic expectations. Primary care is just too complex.

And on and on. These are not silly or spurious or even inaccurate statements, although the last two might be considered another “primary care conundrum”, the one to which medical students are often subjected. All of these are things that family medicine and other primary care specialties have to think about, and address to the extent that it is within their control. I have, for example, talked about the selecting medical students who are likely to be more interested in primary care and underserved (both rural and urban) practice, as well as about making the curriculum more supportive of primary care. However, it is, ultimately, not the responsibility of the primary care specialties, or even the medical educators, but rather of the overall society to develop policies of reimbursement that encourage primary care – if that is what the society wants and needs.

Thus “Payment reform for primary care within the Accountable Care Organization”,[1] by Goroll and Schoenbaum in the August 8, 2012 JAMA is appropriately subtitled “A critical issue for health system reform”. While it may not really be all about the money, a good part of it certainly is. One doesn’t have to be an economist who believes that everything can be reduced to, or expressed in terms of, money, to recognize that lifestyle and status are just other manifestations of money. If you make more (or, more to the point, if the services that you render are reimbursed at higher levels), you can work (if you choose) less, or a health system employing you can hire more people to do that work. Status is measured by many yardsticks, but most of them, at least in our society (since we do not have inherited titles) have to do with money.

Goroll and Schoenbaum, from, respectively, the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, focus their discussion on Accountable Care Organizations, or ACOs. These are a centerpiece of the health reform law (ACA), but most experts believe that, whether ACA survives or not (it has survived the Supreme Court, but there will be continuing challenges, particularly if the Republican Party takes the Senate and/or White House in 2012) it is the wave of the future. This is because it is both a framework for increasing quality and for saving money; saving money is the main thing that virtually all politicians and pundits talk about in regard to health care. Even providers do so, although they mostly focus on saving it on other aspects of the health system.

In a sense, this last is what ACOs seek to avoid; by assigning patients to an ACO that provides comprehensive care – ambulatory, hospital, post-hospital – for lives(in insurance parlance) or people (in English) it seeks to avoid “blaming the other”:
·         We took good care of them, but when they went to the hospital they received poor care or unnecessary procedures.
·         The “local doctor” didn’t provide adequate care, but luckily we in the hospital could save the patient.
·         We did great care in the hospital, but the nursing home (or patient’s family) didn’t, so the patient suffered, or had to be readmitted, or died.
·         They discharged the patient – home or to the nursing home – too soon, so despite our excellent care the patient suffered, or had to be readmitted, or died.

The devil, as always, is in the details. How will this be different from the managed care of the past? (“I heard this all back in 1995,” says a colleague.) In order to avoid some of the politically unpopular characteristics of “managed care”, the ACA does not contain a requirement that patients receive care only from the ACO to which they are assigned. However, if they are cared for elsewhere, how can the ACO ensure either the quality or the cost? Who will care for the uninsured? How will (and they will) providers (including hospitals, doctors, nursing homes) game the system to maximize their advantage by passing the buck, cherry picking the relatively health, emphasizing high-reimbursement and de-emphasizing low reimbursement care? How will (and here “Will it?” is still a question) that be rectified?

The important point of the JAMA article is made in the beginning: that “Primary care, the foundation of the ACO, requires payment reform to enable and make durable its transformation into a high-performance model such as the patient-centered medical home.” Primary care is the foundation of the ACO, just as it is the foundation of any effectively-functioning health system. The authors cite 3 main obstacles to increasing payment for primary care: 1) Inertia. It is not the way our incredibly elaborate and expensive payment system is currently structured, and changing it will be hard; 2) Resistance. The development of new systems and funding will require, particularly in a setting in which overall funding will not appreciably increase, the reallocation of money from one set of groups to others, and this certainly will (and already has) meet with resistance by those who will lose money. 3)  “Motivation 2.0”. “…many health care executives (including some physician managers) believe that physicians work harder under fee for service and that productivity is at risk of faltering under payment systems that do not maintain a strong, volume-based incentive.”

The first two are obvious and will have to be strongly and persistently addressed if there is to be any success in re-engineering the health care system; there is no one who will fight so hard as a group whose privileges, no matter how unfairly earned, are being threatened. However, the third is more questionable. Another colleague asked “is there any evidence that this is not true?” Indeed, there is some evidence that it is; in the 1990s when hospitals and health systems bought out physician practices, they often found that the physicians, now salaried, were less productive than when they were in practices where their income came from productivity. The flaw there is that the same standards were being used for measurement: how many patients were seen, how many wRVUs (a measure, albeit imperfect, of physician productivity). It was not measured by whether the quality of patients’ health was improved. Perhaps by seeing fewer patients-per-day, for longer visits when they need them, or providing care in teams and by phone and email when appropriate, fewer return visits would be needed (bad if reimbursement is all fee-for-service) and delivered in teams.

Goroll and Schoenbaum do not, actually, use the phrase “Motivation 2.0”. This comes from Daniel H. Pink, a business management author, from his book “Drive”, published in 2009 and one of the most influential management books in recent years.[2]Pink contrasts the management style based on this sort of motivation (2.0, not the “1.0” that was ancient man’s – survival), the dominant one of the 20thcentury and into the 21st with a new understanding of what motivates people and what kind of management is most effective. He draws on decades of psychological and sociological and business research, as well as actual implementations in management practice, to clarify what this new appreciation, “Motivation 3.0” is. I recommend reading the book, quite short and easy.

But understanding and implementing effective motivational practices will certainly not, in itself, solve health care. Making sure that there are systems to ensure quality, and that they are available to everyone, is the sine qua non.

[1]Goroll A H and Schoenbaum SC, “Payment reform for primary care within the Accountable Care Organization”, JAMA 8Aug2012;308(6):577-8.
[2] Pink, Daniel H, “Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us”, Riverhead Books, New York 2009.

Education of Health Copyright © 2012