Action Needed to Stop Demise of Primary Care

August 30, 2006
News Office: Vanessa deGier (415) 502-6397

Primary care medicine faces a serious crisis that could threaten the health of millions of Americans, according to a UCSF health policy expert.

Dr. Thomas Bodenheimer, professor of family and community medicine at UCSF, discusses this crisis in the Aug. 31 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Bodenheimer is the author of a "perspective" piece on this topic.

Primary care refers to services provided by patients' personal physicians, who are usually family practitioners, general internists or general pediatricians. "A strong primary-care base for a health system improves care and reduces health care costs," says Bodenheimer.

In his article, Bodenheimer explains that three main factors contribute to the demise of primary care: low reimbursement rates for primary care services, the stressful work life of primary care physicians, and the dwindling number of US medical graduates choosing careers in family medicine. "The number of US medical graduates choosing careers in family medicine has fallen by 50 percent since 1997," Bodenheimer says. "In addition, only about one-fifth of US medical graduates entering the field of internal medicine pick careers in primary care medicine; most pursue specialized training in gastroenterology, cardiology, and other specialties."

Bodenheimer urges action to stop the demise of primary care in the form of an educational campaign to explain the nature and causes of the threats to primary care's survival, to provide well-documented information on the benefits of primary care, and to offer concrete proposals for reforming the broken system.

"Averting the collapse of primary care requires reform in the payment system and improvements within primary care practices," says Bodenheimer. "It also requires a coordinated effort between employers and insurers, health care providers and patients, public and private institutions, and government."

A bolstered, more effective primary care sector would reap a return on investment by employers and insurance companies as well as benefit the public through a reduction in health care costs nationwide, he argues. "Unfortunately, to date, public policy on primary care is nearly nonexistent, leaving the fortunes of primary care dictated not by the health care needs of the country, but by a specialty-rich, quantity-based reimbursement system," he says.

The prevalence of chronic conditions-- most of which are handled in primary care settings-- is increasing along with demands placed on physicians to perform primary care tasks reliably and consistently. According to research cited in the article, a physician with a typical number of patients would take 10.6 hours per working day to offer all recommended chronic care, plus an additional 7.4 hours per day to provide routine preventive care, clearly an impossible task, according to Bodenheimer.

"As the number of primary care physicians dwindles, patients are having a harder time getting timely appointments with their personal physicians," says Bodenheimer. "Many patients seek expensive emergency room services because they are unable to obtain appointments with their personal primary care physician, adding to the cost and failure of the system."

Bodenheimer also makes the argument that patients with a regular primary care physician have lower overall health costs than those without. And compared with specialists, primary care physicians provide comparable quality of care at lower cost for a variety of conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and chronic lower back pain. "Primary care is a resource the American public can not afford to lose," he adds. "Health care systems need a strong primary care base in order to ensure the provision of preventive and chronic care services to patients, and in order to keep healthcare costs under control."

The UCSF Department of Family and Community Medicine and The Permanente Medical Group recently collaborated in launching the Center for Excellence in Primary Care. The Center hopes to develop an educational campaign and practical solutions to the primary care crisis described in Bodenheimer's article.

UCSF is a leading university that consistently defines health care worldwide by conducting advanced biomedical research, educating graduate students in the life sciences, and providing complex patient care.

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