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


Dr. Lin: You’ve identified two needs. The immediate need is that primary care practices need revenue now to not have to close in the immediate aftermath or the ongoing COVID epidemic, but also there’s the long term, the percentage of health care dollars that are going to primary care in the long term. You pointed out in your article that currently 5% or less of health care spending is in primary care, which is a lot less percentage-wise than in many other countries. I think the question always comes up is that we want to increase that share, but the money has to come from somewhere. Where is that extra money going to come from?
Dr. Frieden: I’m not an expert in health care finance, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that one person’s waste, fraud, and abuse is somebody else’s profit center. It’s not going to be easy. On the one hand, we do need to think about more efficient ways to organize primary care; on the other hand, we have to figure out a way to internalize some of the savings. If you give good primary care and, therefore, someone doesn’t get hospitalized, you can actually lose money in the current system, whereas you’re saving the system a lot of money by preventing that hospitalization.

I think our health system does have significant inefficiencies in terms of the number of tests and interventions that are done that are really not proven to help patients. It has been demonstrated for decades now that the usual economic incentives don’t operate in health care. In health care, supply often generates demand. The number of gallbladder operations is proportional not to population but to the number of gallbladder surgeons. That’s a problem, and it’s a problem that we’re going to have to assess. “Gatekeeper” is an unpleasant word, but if a primary care practitioner could be the advocate for patients so that we’re not pushing for patients to get more care or to get less care but to get the right care, we have the potential to reduce costs while improving quality.

Dr. Lin: You accurately point out that the fee-for-service payment system has been the major culprit in the declining revenues of primary care practices since the start of the pandemic. But for the majority of primary care physicians, including myself, fee-for-service is all that we’ve ever known. Do you think that primary care is ready for such an abrupt financing change, particularly in a very short period of time?Dr. Frieden: You’re certainly accurate in saying that nothing about health care finance is easy. Trying to address these problems at the national or state level has been extremely difficult. I think that the pilot programs in Medicare are very important. Medicaid is a particular challenge because it’s a state-based program and many of the costs are driven by nursing home and long-term care. When you take those costs out, the actual funding per patient or per provider is quite low in most places.

It’s hard enough to reorganize if you’ve got ample resources, but to reorganize when they are insufficient is particularly hard. I would say only that there are no quick and simple answers to this question, but there is a widespread understanding that what we’re doing now doesn’t make sense. We pay top dollar and we get – despite fantastic doctors and fantastic hospitals – lousy outcomes. I’m a public health physician. I’m an internal medicine and infectious disease specialist. Fundamentally, I look at the data. If you think of our health care system as a patient, the patient is not doing well. We’re not functional to the degree we need to be, particularly when you think of what an enormous outlier our per capita expenditures are [compared with other developed countries] – almost twice the average upper-income country and 25% more than any other upper-income country.

Now, anyone who tells you that change is going to be pain-free is not leveling with you. In addition to things like telemedicine, we have to make much more use of team-based care and task sharing. There are lots of things that doctors are doing these days that they really shouldn’t.

Dr. Lin: In your recent op-ed, you noted the pivot to telehealth that primary care practices have made very quickly in response to the pandemic. That certainly was the experience for my practice. But what are some other strategies that you think are important to support the goal of better care delivery in our primary care practices?Dr. Frieden: Another really important innovation is team-based care. There are lots of things that doctors are doing today that nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and community health workers can do better and for less money. Frankly, I think that should increase the job satisfaction of physicians, to be doing work that is specific to the physician, requiring either more patient interaction or advanced reasoning or experience.

In my own field of tuberculosis control, I learned how to treat tuberculosis because the nurse at the TB clinic kept correcting me because that’s all she did. She did tuberculosis care, so she had seen everything. Even though I’d finished an infectious disease fellowship and internal medicine residency, the public health nurse knew TB a whole lot better than I did.

Similarly, as we work on hypertension control, you can protocolize most of this care and do a much better job. That’s been proven for more than 40 years, and yet we still don’t do it.

One of the big parts of being able to do more with the same or fewer resources is going to be more team-based care. That’s really a task-sharing approach. I think of that as a triple win: You get better care for lower costs with more employment. What’s not to like?

Dr. Lin: I’m hopeful, as you are, that many of these innovations that have been made by necessity will persist beyond the duration of COVID-19. As you said, the health care system has been really difficult to change, and it often takes something like this to galvanize enough consensus that things need to change.

Dr. Frieden: I think the bottom line here is that we should pay our primary health care providers to keep us healthy and ensure that we have a payment system that lets them do that without risking bankruptcy. That’s not too much to ask of our system. It’s important for our health. It’s important for our economy. It’s important for our communities.

Dr. Lin teaches family medicine, preventive medicine, and health policy at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He is deputy editor of the journal American Family Physician. Follow him on Twitter. He has served as a director, officer, partner, employee, adviser, consultant, or trustee for MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from UpToDate, Wiley-Blackwell, and American Academy of Family Physicians.

Dr. Frieden is a physician with advanced training in internal medicine, infectious disease, public health, and epidemiology. He has served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and as commissioner of the New York City Health Department. Currently he is president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. Follow him on Twitter. Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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