So what’s the real root of the problem? Money. According to recent surveys, PCPs earn about half the salary of dermatologists and an even smaller fraction of an average cardiologist’s pay. With medical school debt routinely reaching $200,000, Dr. O’Malley and other analysts say, many doctors simply can’t afford to go into primary care.
“It all comes down to payment, basically,” she says. “At present, our payment system for physician services and for medical procedures is quite skewed. It overcompensates for certain types of diagnostics and procedures, and it undercompensates for the more cognitive type of care that primary-care providers provide.”
The Road Ahead
Fortunately, some relief is trickling in. One measure strongly supported by SHM and included in the Affordable Care Act is a 10% Medicare reimbursement bonus for primary care delivered by qualified doctors, slated to begin next year. In June, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a separate, $250 million initiative to boost the primary-care workforce. The money would help train PCPs by creating more residency slots, and offer new support for physician assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners. Among the measures included in last year’s stimulus package, an expansion of the National Health Service Corps will provide more debt-relief opportunities for PCPs. And in mid-September, HHS tapped stimulus funds to award another $50.3 million for primary care training programs and loan repayment.
The Obama administration has claimed its combined actions “will support the training and development of more than 16,000 new primary-care providers over the next five years,” according to a June 16 HHS press release.
Observers say those measures alone are unlikely to be enough to stem the tide, however. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Dr. O’Malley says of the Medicare bonus. “I don’t think it’s going to solve the primary-care workforce issue, because a 10% bonus, given how low primary-care physician salaries are compared to their specialist counterparts, is not going to be that much of an increase. Among the physicians that I’ve talked to and other healthcare providers, few feel that that’s sufficient enough to really encourage a lot of people to pursue primary care.”
Several other efforts now underway might help:
- Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center unveiled a new Family Medicine Accelerated Track program, which will allow primary-care medical students to complete a degree in three years. Certain students will receive a one-year scholarship, meaning that overall debt for some could be half that of the standard four-year program.
- Reid Hospital and Health Care Services in Richmond, Ind., successfully reversed a downward trend in primary-care referrals by forming its own nonprofit subsidiary corporation, Reid Physician Associates. The nonprofit will include about 50 employed outpatient providers by year’s end to complement the 233-bed hospital’s inpatient staff.
- Danville, Pa.-based Geisinger Health System has begun paying the salaries of extra nurses for both in-network and independent primary-care practices. The nurses manage patients’ chronic conditions, ensure that they are following prescribed treatments, and communicate with hospitalists and other providers about transitions of care. Although still in its early stages, the experiment suggests the nurses are helping to spot problems, prevent unnecessary hospitalizations, and save money.
The Geisinger experiment is among the first steps toward a patient-centered medical home model of care. An eventual Medicare-led expansion of such medical homes and accountable-care organizations, now in the early experimental stages, could provide even more direct support to PCPs. To be successful, though, Dr. O’Malley says the models will need to focus on paying providers fairly for the value they bring to the system. “Obviously, payment reform is what we need if we’re ever going to develop a sustainable primary-care workforce in this country,” she says. TH