Will primary care physicians be COVID-19’s next victims?


In a recently published editorial, Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argued that primary care is in deep trouble, its long-standing financial problems exacerbated by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Those arguments resonated with Kenny Lin, MD, MPH, a family physician, professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and a regular contributor to Medscape. He spoke with Dr. Frieden about his concerns.

Dr. Kenneth W. Lin

Dr. Kenneth W. Lin

Dr. Lin: Why did you feel that it was important to write this piece focused on primary care?

Dr. Frieden: I’m glad you asked that question. Given all that is going on, one might ask, what is the importance of primary care? We’ve got this epidemic going on that requires public health and hospital systems. Why voice concern about primary care now?

When I’ve looked around the United States, I’ve been extremely concerned about both the risk that primary care practitioners are subjected to in their everyday practice and the economic risk that we could lose many of our primary care practices around the country. It’s really striking to see that the number of visits has plummeted. Because of our payment structure, that means incomes have plummeted. We’re hearing about doctors’ offices getting boarded up and shuttering. As I write in the piece, it’s one thing for a theater or a restaurant or another important community entity to shut because of economic downturn, and these are real losses, but to lose their only primary care practice or one of the few in an area really is a matter of life and death for many communities.

Dr. Lin: I agree. In my own practice we haven’t had to furlough anyone, but we’ve put people on forced paid time off. We’ve been reallocating physicians to other parts of our health system. It is definitely a concern. A solo practitioner or someone in a rural practice would most likely be even much more heavily hit. You’ve argued that the neglect of our public health system on a national level has led to many preventable deaths from COVID-19. Do you feel that something similar has happened in primary care? How could a stronger, better-funded primary care infrastructure better prepare us for the next pandemic?

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden

Dr. Frieden: All over the world, we see an overemphasis on hospital care and an underemphasis on primary care, outpatient care, family medicine. As a result, we pay more. We have larger risks, and we don’t prevent diseases that we could prevent. It’s fundamentally about the economic incentives of our health care system. Of course, that often reflects the political reality of different profit centers and cost centers of care. That won’t change with tweaking around the edges. It will only change if we change the way we pay for health care. Money talks. We need to start paying at least part of what we pay based on health outcomes.

Many years ago a colleague and I wrote an article, “Health Care as If Health Mattered.” If you step back and look at how we pay for health care, very little, if any, of our payment structure is based on how much health the care system delivers. Part of that can be addressed by going to capitated models, which I think do better. But you have also got to put into those capitated systems some quality and outcome measures that are both valid and not too burdensome to report on. That’s not easy. We could talk a lot about some of the information systems and payment systems, but I think the bottom line is that we need to be able to deal not only with health emergencies, but also with preventive care, care of chronic diseases, and behavioral health care in ways that maximize health.

One of the ways to do that is simple, monthly, capitated payments along with what I call a registry-based outcomes system.

I’m a tuberculosis specialist by training. In tuberculosis there really is a great information system. We track every single patient who has been diagnosed, and we hold every clinician accountable for whether or not they’ve successfully treated that patient. An optimal health care system should do the same with treatment of hypertension, diabetes, seizure disorder, and other common conditions in which treatment makes a really big difference. Preventive care, especially vaccine delivery, is another example.

I understand that physicians will point out that patients may not come in for that care, or they’re hard to deal with, or they refuse recommended treatment. We don’t expect 100%. But we should expect that, if we’re paying for health care, we should get health.

To do that, I think we need much more support for primary care, both in terms of the absolute amount of dollars going in and the administrative support. Some of our systems are so complicated that you can’t manage them without a billing department. How does a one- or two-physician practice deal with systems that will take dozens of hours a week to manage? You have to deal with the administrative complexity, the structure of the incentives, and the structure of care.

I think these are all things that we have to address. But for a minute, let’s helicopter up and look at the big picture. Without additional help from Congress, tens of thousands of primary care physicians could go out of business in the coming weeks. This is a crisis, and this will be very hard to rebuild. We don’t have a strong, resilient primary care infrastructure today, and if we’re not careful it’ll be even weaker as we try to rebuild.

It has been encouraging to see some of the care innovations that have occurred in response to the pandemic. I’m particularly encouraged by the widespread interest in and support for telemedicine. Telemedicine is a very important way of making care safer, more accessible, less expensive, more efficient. There have been a lot of restrictions on it, not just in the United States but globally, for many years. It’s really interesting to see those restrictions rapidly change. I give credit to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for quick changes in this area.

Now, telemedicine isn’t a cure-all. There are lots of things you can’t do from a distance. It’s a pale reflection of reality, compared with an in-person first visit with a patient. But it’s a whole lot better than nothing. If we look at some of the best health systems in the United States, they’ve gone to as much as 80% of clinical visits done by telemedicine. I don’t think we’re going to go back. Even if COVID is no longer the threat that it is today, if you can do things more quickly, more efficiently, and more conveniently for both patients and doctors, do them. Obviously, it won’t be all visits, but it could be a large proportion of visits and an important part of strengthening our primary care system.

My initiative, Resolve to Save Lives, which is part of the global health organization Vital Strategies, has done work in the area of public health around the world. I am really struck by how weak primary care systems are in so many countries. Strong primary care systems are the exception rather than the rule, but they’re also a best buy in health care. They’re crucially important, and they’re going to work differently in different countries, in different states, in different communities. We need to do a better job of supporting primary care, building primary care, and paying for primary care.

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