Primary Care Is Dead, Part 1: The Obituary

DrRich | July 5th, 2011 - 11:05 am


The recent announcement that President Obama would dispatch “secret shoppers” – agents of the government posing as patients with either private insurance or Medicare/Medicaid, who would call primary care physicians’ offices to document how long it takes to receive appointments – had many PCPs quite upset.

PCPs were upset despite the fact that the administration assured them that the President’s spies were only aiming to help. In particular, the secret shoppers were going to document that America has a PCP shortage, presumably so that government programs of some sort could be devised to fix that shortage. (They would also document, bye the bye, that patients with government insurance have a more difficult time getting appointments with PCPs.) Apparently, however, the outcry from insulted PCPs was so great that the administration quickly decided to scrap the secret shoppers program – for now, at least.

It is obvious that what the administration claimed they wanted to measure is already well known. Yes, there is indeed a PCP shortage. And yes, PCPs (being, on average, intelligent persons) are relatively slow to schedule patients whose insurance is known to result in a financial loss – if they schedule them at all.

Therefore, equally obviously, there must be some other motive for the administration to have devised this secret shopper program.

The real motive, DrRich submits, was to establish with actual data that: a) we have a two-tiered healthcare system, in which patients on government insurance plans sometimes have more difficulty obtaining medical care, and b) doctors (even the universally-beloved PCPs) are greedy and untrustworthy. Such results, with expert handling, would have served to move some American citizens a little closer to accepting a single-payer healthcare system. It would also serve to convince a few people that, seeing as how physicians behave so badly, perhaps it is not really necessary to have a doctor as your PCP.

All in all, the secret shopper program would have been a few hundred thousand dollars well-spent.

Still, DrRich can only shake his head in wonderment that his PCP friends expressed such great dismay over such a small thing as the secret shopper program. It is as if, after the Titanic struck the iceberg, a delegation of passengers was dispatched to berate the Captain because the turn-down service seemed slow that night.

How is it possible for PCPs to be so indignant about such a trivial thing as secret shoppers, when the very means of their livelihood – their chosen career – is at an end? For it is plain to anyone who cares to look that primary care medicine as we know it is dead. It lingered for years in a moribund condition, and its obituary was finally published last year in the Obamacare legislation.

Primary care’s cause of death was a culmination of two fatal disorders. Firstly, the healthcare system itself – well before the Obama administration came along – slowly smothered primary care into oblivion.

Consider the reduced condition to which the healthcare system – especially the government payers – eventually drove the primary care doctor: Their pay is determined arbitrarily by Acts of Congress, like workers in the old Soviet collectives. They are directed to “practice medicine” strictly according to directives (quaintly called “guidelines”), handed down from on high by panels of sanctioned experts, and accordingly PCPs are enjoined from taking into account their professional experience, or their specific knowledge of their individual patients. They are limited to 7.5 minutes per patient “encounter,” and the content of this brief encounter is determined by sundry Pay for Performance checklists, so as to strictly limit any interactions with their patients that do not meet the approved agenda. Their every move must be carefully documented according to incomprehensible rules, on innumerable forms and documents, that confound patient care but that greatly further the convenience of the stone-witted bureaucrats who are employed specifically to second-guess every clinical decision and every action they take. Worst of all PCPs have been charged with being the primary mediators of covert, bedside healthcare rationing, and to this end have been pressed to nullify the classic doctor-patient relationship by the healthcare bureaucracy that determines their professional viability, by the United States Supreme Court*, and by the bankrupt, new-age ethical precepts of their own profession.

*Pegram et al. vs Herdrich(98-1940), 530 US211 (2000)

By such insults, even before Obamacare became the law of the land, primary care medicine had been reduced to one of the most frustrating, enervating and demeaning endeavors a physician could imagine.  Many if not most practicing PCPs are looking to either retire early or change careers, and medical students – even the most idealistic ones – are avoiding primary care in droves, especially if their training exposes them to the palpable despair radiated by actual primary care physicians.

But the second fatal disorder has nothing to do with policy or politics. Even if doctors had perfect control of the healthcare system and the political realities, primary care medicine (as we know it) would still be in trouble. This is because of an axiomatic truth revealed by the annals of human progress, to wit: As knowledge increases and technology improves, activities that used to require the services of highly-trained experts become available to non-experts who have much less training. A lot of what PCPs have traditionally done – check-ups of well patients, screening for occult disease, controlling cholesterol, advising on diet, weight loss and exercise, managing routine hypertension and diabetes – really can be reduced to a series of guidelines and checklists, which can be adequately followed by individuals with much less training than these doctors receive.

When any area of expertise evolves to this level, it is inevitable (in a free economy) that lesser-trained individuals will inherit it. This event greatly increases productivity, makes the services in question more readily available to many people at lower cost, and (ideally) frees up the experts to take on more challenging endeavors. While this kind of transition is nearly inevitable, it is often painful and disruptive. The pain and disruption are being experienced by PCPs today.

DrRich agrees with fellow blogger Wade Kartchner that primary care medicine has advanced to the point where it really would make sense to turn over many of the routine, mundane, and reducible-to-checklist tasks that PCPs typically perform to non-physicians. PCPs who are fighting against this inevitability are wasting their time and energy. They are fighting both history and the laws of economics, so in the end it is a losing battle. It is time for PCPs to move on.

It is of course immaterial whether you agree with DrRich on this point. It is immaterial because this is how the Central Authority sees it.

Having painstakingly reduced you PCPs to tools of the state – whose chief job is to follow the guidelines and place chits on the checklists, &c. – it is only natural for the Central Authority to eventually notice that you really don’t need all that training to do the kind of job they have invented for you. Nurses – who can be “trained up” much more rapidly than you, who will work for much less money than you, and who (they think) will be much less recalcitrant about following handed-down directives than you – will fill the gap. And you, doctor, can go pound salt.

So it was really only a formality for the Obamacare legislation to make the death of primary care official. And the new law, accordingly, did so by stating explicitly that PCPs and nurse practitioners are now equivalent, one and the same. They are both PCPs under the eyes of the law. The actual language of the obituary is as follows:

The term ‘primary care practitioner’ means an individual who —

(I) is a physician (as described in section 1861(r)(1)) who has a primary specialty designation of family medicine, internal medicine, geriatric medicine, or pediatric medicine; or

(II) is a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, or physician assistant (as those terms are defined in 9 section 1861(aa)(5))

What this means is that today there are two pathways to becoming a PCP. You can spend four years in college, four years in medical school and three years in a clinical residency – or you can go to nursing school and do another year or two of clinical training. Given this established fact, one could hardly fault patients for questioning the common sense (if not the intelligence) of a healthcare worker who, at this point in the history of medicine, would choose the former pathway.

And so the issue is decided. PCPs: by virtue of your specialty you have been formally (and legally) reduced to the status of a nurse-equivalent. Your specialty, as you have known it, is dead.

Among other things, this means that the secret shopper gambit – when it is finally implemented – is just not worth worrying about. It’s only a way to convince a few more Americans that their PCPs are essentially worthless, and that they’d be just as well off having a nurse practitioner do the job. So don’t sweat the secret shoppers. Forget them.

Instead, you need to decide what you’re going to do about the demise of your chosen career.

In his next post, DrRich offers you some friendly advice in this regard.

7 Responses to “Primary Care Is Dead, Part 1: The Obituary”

  1. DayOwl says:

    My own, admittedly anecdotal, experience is that primary care practices have been reduced to providing only “preventive” services, which are a substitute for healthcare. There seem to be very strong disincentives to provide health care to a patient who is acutely ill, even if it is easily treatable. Urgent care practices, which good insurance policy holders are supposed to avoid because of the “extra expense”, now seem to serve as the treatment solutions for low-level acute illness, because PCP’s are no longer allowed to do so.

  2. Primary care died long ago when the term “doctor” was replaced with “PCP”. Unfortunately, DrRich’s assessment of the healtcare system is 100% correct and Dr Rich and I are dinosaurs. I have been working hard to teach my patients to be self sufficient and healthy as their future ability to access healthcare is dismal.

    The healthy patient will love the new system as they will not need to use it. Patients with chronic illnesses will become the new “Lepers” as physician incentives are realigned from caring about patients to caring about outcomes.

    I have pleaded with my patients, watch “Soylent Green”! Science fiction has a way of beoming reality.

  3. [...] his last post, DrRich pointed out to his PCP friends that their chosen profession of primary care medicine is [...]

  4. ann says:

    I am a nurse/manager in primary care, also di all the billing for the practice of two physicians. I and the doctors beleive your words to be true. The changes in the past years have been incredible to say the least. The insurance giants have changed medicine from the day HMO’s have begun. That was the start of the end. I see no good end in sight.Cost effective,I am not so sure. When insurance companies would rather pay a specialist 200.00 dollars for an ear flush rather a mere 20.00 additional to the primary, wheres the sense in that. God knows where were really heading, I pity the lives of the american public, yet I feel the primarys brought alot of this on themselves.

  5. John N says:

    This is really a silly post and has no interest in talking about the innovative things happening in the primary care area.

    Yes things have and are changing but there are some very interesting options for people evolving

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply