The 1961 classic “The Ecology of Medical Care,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine, mapped out the broad features of the American healthcare landscape.1 For every 1,000 adult, the study suggested, 750 reported an illness, 250 consulted a doctor, and nine were admitted to a hospital in any given month. The subsequent arrival of Medicare and Medicaid fundamentally changed the U.S. healthcare system. And yet an updated version of the study, released in 2001, yielded surprisingly similar numbers, with 800 residents experiencing symptoms, 217 visiting a physician’s office, and eight being hospitalized in an average month.2
“It helps kind of put in perspective where the bulk of care really occurs,” says Ann O’Malley, MD, a senior researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Studying Health System Change. “It’s in outpatient provider offices, mostly primary-care provider offices.”
Dr. O’Malley and a host of other observers, however, are warning that the keystone members of this healthcare ecosystem are in serious trouble. As organizations such as SHM have likewise made clear, the accelerating shortage of general internists, family practitioners, and other PCPs has created sizable cracks in the supports of the entire healthcare infrastructure.
How big are the cracks? The number of medical school students pursuing a primary-care career has dropped by more than half since 1997, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. And with the number of medical students entering the field unable to keep up with attrition, the remaining doctors are facing increasingly difficult working conditions. “Overloaded primary-care practices, whose doctors are aptly compared to hamsters on a treadmill, struggle to provide prompt access and high-quality care,” asserted a 2009 op-ed in the New England Journal of Medicine.3 The result: a vicious circle of decline leading to an anticipated shortfall of roughly 21,000 PCPs by 2015, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Many primary-care providers had already stopped taking new patients when June’s Medicare reimbursement rate fiasco allowed the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula’s mandated 21.2 percent rate cut to temporarily go into effect. Legislators eventually plugged the hole, but not before a new round of jitters seized the nation’s physicians, and reports proliferated throughout the summer about Medicare beneficiaries being unable to find a doctor willing to see them. The recession hasn’t helped, with more privately insured patients waiting longer to see their doctors to avoid copays, and with hospital emergency departments becoming de facto primary-care centers for those patients who have waited too long or have no other alternatives.
Not only is there an acute shortage of primary-care physicians, Dr. O’Malley says, but there is also a distinctly uneven distribution throughout the country. For hospitalists, she says, the implications could be profound. “Hospitalists are increasingly going to be evaluated around issues such as avoiding hospital readmissions and [reducing] length of stay,” she says, “and if they want to improve both of those things, one of the keys is improving chronic care management in the outpatient setting, and improving follow-up post discharge.”
Both metrics will require the involvement of outpatient care providers, underscoring the importance of good communication and mutual respect. Despite the longstanding support of hospitalists for their primary-care counterparts, however, leaders are still being forced to address the perception that HM is somehow bad for what ails PCPs.
In a recent online article posted on the Becker’s Hospital Review website, SHM President Jeff Wiese, MD, SFHM, responded to one such criticism: that hospitalists make primary care less attractive for physicians. Hospitalists are not to blame for the decrease in interest, he asserted, but are actually complementary to the PCP role. And with millions more Americans about to be newly insured, that complementary relationship will be even more important. “It’s a tremendous waste of resources to use a primary-care provider for [a hospital visit]. We need to move into proactive mode, not reactive mode,” Dr. Wiese said. “More PCPs are going to need even more time in the clinic to handle the increased number of patients, and you lose the luxury to run back and forth between the clinic and the hospital. For those that can develop a trusting relationship with a hospitalist, you can work together to see more patients and provide more care.”