Running in place: The uncertain future of primary care internal medicine

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“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
—Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The future of primary care internal medicine physicians is uncertain. According to a 2018 survey of internal medicine residents conducted by the American College of Physicians, only 11% were considering primary care as a career path.1 In 1998, that number was 54%.2

See related commentary

Possible reasons are many:

  • Lower pay compared with subspecialists in a pay system that rewards procedural competency over mental effort
  • Work schedules less flexible than in other specialties (eg, hospital medicine practitioners may have 1 week on and 1 week off)
  • Perceived lack of respect
  • Increasing regulatory and record-keeping burdens
  • Tyranny of 15- to 20-minute appointments (irrespective of patient complexity)
  • Scope-of-practice concerns as other providers seek primary care equivalency status (eg, pharmacists, walk-in clinics, advanced practice providers, telemedicine providers).

The result is a projected shortage of primary care physicians of 21,100 to 55,200 by 2030, according to a 2019 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges,3 despite an expected growth in advanced practice providers in primary care such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

A practical result of this shortage will be even less patient access to primary care physicians. A 2017 national survey found that the average wait time for a new patient-physician appointment has already increased by 30% since 2014.4 The wait time to see a primary care physician varied between 29 days in major metropolitan areas (up 50% from 2014) and 56 days in mid-sized markets. The longest waits by market size were 109 days for new patients in Boston, MA, and 122 days for those living in Albany, NY.

What are the implications?

In this issue, Pravia and Diaz5 make the case that primary care providers must adapt their practices to meet the needs of younger generations by increasing their use of technology. We agree that telemedicine, wearable medical devices, and enhanced patient communication through the electronic medical record (EMR) are here to stay and should be embraced.

However, we have seen the challenges of adopting technologic advances without first making an adjustment to the volume-driven patient schedule. For such advances to be successfully integrated into a clinical practice, it is vital to be cognizant of the current challenges encountered in primary care internal medicine.


In addition to the stress of addressing multiple complex medical problems within a short time, evaluating multiple medical problems often leads to increases in results to review, forms to complete, and calls to patients. Even treatment plans initiated by specialists are often deferred to primary care providers for dosing adjustments, follow-up laboratory testing, and monitoring.

Moreover, patients often seek a second opinion from their primary care provider regarding care provided by subspecialists, as they consider their primary care provider to be the doctor who knows them best. And though it can be personally gratifying to be considered a trusted partner in the patient’s care, these requests often result in additional phone calls to the office or another thing to address within a complex visit.

A large in-box can be daunting in the setting of increased EMR demands. Whether you have difficulty putting in basic orders or are an advanced user, each upgrade can make you feel like you’re using the EMR for the first time. This is a problem for all specialties, but in primary care, one is addressing a large spectrum of concerns, so there is less opportunity to use standardized templates that can help buffer the problem.

A study of primary care providers found that nearly 75% of each patient visit was spent on activities other than face-to-face patient care, including working with the EMR.6 Similarly, a study using in-office observations and after-hours diaries found that physicians from various specialties spend 2 hours on administrative duties for each hour that they see patients in the office, followed by an additional 1 to 2 hours of work after clinic, mostly devoted to the EMR.7

Clinicians using scribes to help with record-keeping duties often need to see more patients to compensate for the cost. Adding 2 to 3 patients to a daily schedule usually means adding more medical conditions to manage, with an exponential increase in testing and in-box burden.

The additional burden this coverage creates in primary care is often not well understood by those in other specialties.

Next Article:

Can a humanities background prevent physician burnout?

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