The importance of the primary care physician cannot be overstated. By providing preventive care and treatment, primary care physicians save the healthcare system about $32 billion each year. Additionally, patients who see their primary care physician regularly are shown to lead longer, healthier lives. Because primary care can have a tremendous impact on patients’ health, it is critical to tackle internal and external challenges that primary care physicians and providers face, such as:
- The COVID-19 pandemic. A study of physicians in April 2020 by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) found that, on average, “practices report a 55-percent decrease in revenue and 60-percent decrease in patient volume since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.” In addition to putting themselves at risk of contracting the virus, physicians cared for their staff while “taking a 55-percent pay cut.” Even with telehealth, physicians were only attaining between 50 and 60 percent of their original patient volumes.
- The physician shortage. The demand for primary care providers outpaces the supply of available physicians, and this has led to a troubling feedback loop. Caps on residency programs and mounting debt are discouraging medical students from pursuing primary care medicine. At the same time, 33 percent of physicians will be 65 or older by 2029 and are expected to retire, and there are not enough new physicians to replace them. This is compounded by the fact that the number of patients aged 65 or older will increase by 48 percent between 2017 and 2032.
- Physician burnout. For primary care physicians, the burnout rate hovers around 79 percent due to excessive workload, lack of autonomy, overly complicated electronic health records (EHRs) and healthcare technology, and burdensome bureaucratic work. Physician burnout costs the healthcare system between $2.6 billion and $6.3 billion each year.
It’s clear there is a disconnect between how primary care is working for our physicians and how it is working for our patients. The challenge to the healthcare industry is how to address these issues in primary care?
Investing in Primary Care for the Future
It sounds counterintuitive to spend money on an area of the healthcare system that is meant to reduce costs. However, accessible and affordable primary care has been proven to reduce hospital visits and physician burnout.
A report from the Primary Care Collaborative shows that the U.S. spends only five to seven percent of total health care spend on primary care, despite the fact that it “accounts for 48 percent of physician office visits each year and influences up to 90 percent of total health care cost through referrals, testing, procedures, and hospitalizations.”
Investing in such an impactful part of the healthcare industry can generate great results. Studies have shown that greater investment in primary care that emphasizes the “Quadruple Aim,” leads to more patients with positive outcomes.
Investing in primary care can mean many different things. Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced rules to increase payments to physicians for E/M visits to ease the burnout associated with running an independent practice, expanding residency programs so more medical students can study the discipline, and building integrated technology to limit their input on bureaucratic tasks. Investment in technology and time-saving clinical practices is critical to staving off physician burnout and overcoming this challenge.
Direct-to-Consumer Models & Primary Care
COVID-19 accelerated the development of the direct-to-consumer model in various parts of the healthcare industry as it tightened resources and reduced patients’ access to their physicians. Even before the pandemic, primary care was seeing a shift in preferences for their youngest patient demographics.
Millennial and Generation Z patients tend to be willing to pay more for convenience, and 43 percent prefer retail health clinics over a primary care physician. This change in patient preferences is leading the healthcare industry to shift in favor of consumer-centric methods for delivering care. In order to stay ahead of the curve, primary care physicians may have to adapt as well.
Direct-to-consumer telemedicine can fill in gaps in care by enabling patients to see a primary care physician quickly for commonly prescribed medications like birth control, or for visits that do not require in-person or more extensive treatments. Part of investing in primary care requires finding technology and programs that can connect physicians with patients to fill gaps and continue care in convenient ways.
By investing in the practice and means of delivering primary care, the healthcare system can expand patients’ access to preventive care and avoid expensive emergency treatment. Expanding access to primary care is especially critical in rural areas that have relied on telehealth before and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Expanding access, along with growing areas of primary care to meet demand, can help primary care physicians overcome some of the biggest challenges in their profession.