Monday, May 25, 2009

A Crisis in Primary Care

We are entering if not already in a crisis of primary care. Each of us needs a competent, caring and available primary care physician but that is less and less possible. Many can’t find one; others cannot afford one; and others have one but cannot get adequate time and attention from him or her. PCPs will tell you that they do not have enough time with each patient; are overwhelmed with paperwork and mandates; and are earning less and less per year. There are about 1000 graduating physicians entering primary care per year in the USA but about 3-4000 retiring. Average income after about ten years in practice of $150,000 has been stable or decreasing for some years while the costs of practice including staff wages, rent and utilities, malpractice insurance and supplies has been rising. Most medical school graduates have about $155,000 in debt to pay off. To make ends meet and retain the same income, PCPs are seeing more patients with longer days and shorter visits. This is not good for them and it definitely is not good for you. Basically they have a non-sustainable business model today as a result of the reimbursement system through our commercial and governmental insurance system.
To counter the problem, more and more PCPs are taking steps to increase their income while decreasing the number of patients seen per day. Some approaches are frankly disappointing such as the doctor with a sign in the waiting room that you may “only raise one problem per visit.” A colleague told me last week that her internist is no longer taking Medicare. She will have to pay for each visit. Perhaps not a problem if you only go for an annual exam and then once or twice for minor problems. But if you develop a complex chronic illness that requires multiple visits it could add up quickly, especially for someone on a fixed income in retirement. Other PCPs are opting for “retainer-based” practices, sometimes called concierge or boutique practices. Here you pay $1500-2000 [or more] per year and in return your PCP reduces his or her practice from 1800 patients to 500 and guarantees that you can be seen the same or the next day, that he or she will be available by cell phone and email 24/7, will visit you at home, will meet you at the ER as needed, and will care for you in the hospital and the nursing home. And each visit will be as long as needed for you and your issues. This is the way it used to be and is the way it really should be now but is not. Another advantage of this type of system is that it becomes a true relationship again between the doctor and the patient with the patient contracting directly for services from the physician – not through a third party. The downside, of course, -- this is extra money out of your pocket since you will still need your insurance for specialists and hospitalization.
What is clear is that the current system does not work and either PCP reimbursements by insurers will go up or more and more PCPs will either retire early or switch to retainer-based practices.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Putting It Together To Bring Down Costs

President Obama is working hard to address the issues surrounding health care in the USA. Two days ago he hosted a group representing many of the major providers such as physicians, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. They promised to work to reduce the rate of rise of costs of care over the coming ten years. No specifics were given out. Here is what I would suggest as the first steps.

If we take the comments from my last few blogs and put them together, we see that a few critical forces have come together to push up the costs of care. To be sure, there are other reasons for the rising cost of care and I will address them in later blogs. But these few are they key ones and are the ones to aggressively address now if we are ever to slow the rise of expenditures much less actually bring them down. Here they are:

Our population is aging – simply stated, “old parts wear out.” We have bad behaviors – poor nutrition, overweight, lack of exercise, stress and tobacco with many of these starting in childhood. Both age and behaviors are leading to the development of complex, chronic diseases [heart failure, diabetes with complications, cancer, etc]. This is much different that the acute illnesses that we generally think of such as appendicitis or pneumonia. In those cases a single physician can treat them and the result is a cure. But these chronic illnesses once developed persist for life and they require the expertise of many providers.

These chronic diseases are expensive to treat – today they consume about 70% of all US health care expenditures although this care is going to only about 10% of the population.
But our care system is poorly coordinated and this results in far too many doctor visits, procedures, test and even hospitalizations. That is the reason for the excess costs and these could be brought down with resulting improved quality of care, safer care and more satisfied patients.

What is needed, more than anything else, is a cadre of primary care physicians [or sometimes specialist a physician] to carefully coordinate the care of those with chronic illnesses. Without question, this approach will bring down costs.

Sounds simple and is in concept but the reality turns out to be not so easy

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Personal Behaviors That Damage Our Health

A very important reason for medical care cost escalation has to do with our own personal behaviors. We are a country of people who are overweight --one-third are overweight and one-third or more are frankly obese --, under-exercised, poorly fed from a nutritional perspective and highly stressed. And it gets worse each year. Even children have progressively declining physical activity from about three hours per day at age nine to less than an hour by age fifteen. And this will correlate to obesity beginning in adolescence. Twenty per cent of us still smoke tobacco. These are some of the major reasons that medical costs will rise in the future. Diabetes will accelerate to epidemic proportions, heart disease will follow, arthritis will be exacerbated by obesity, life spans will be shortened and along the way there will be enormous medical bills to pay. We need a government that encourages good health, regardless of the economic interests that such a program will affect. It will mean less fatty food, less red meat, less whole milk and cheese on our pizza, less sodas [and everything else made with high fructose corn syrup], less prepared and take out meals and more home cooking, more whole grains (whole wheat, brown rice, oatmeal) and a real change in the cereals sold in supermarkets. We need to shop the periphery of the supermarket and leave the aisles with all the prepared foods alone. We still smoke in high numbers with all too many teenagers picking up the habit. They will incur the wrath of lung cancer, heart disease, chronic lung diseases and others in the years to come. And we must finally come to accept that weight gain is a function of the number of calories consumed minus the number expended by exercise. That’s so simple but apparently so difficult that we try all sorts of diets that ultimately don’t work but cost lots of money and frustration. Chronic stress is a cofactor in heart disease, back pain, gastrointestinal disorders and many others. Some alcohol may be good for our heart but it is never good to drink and drive yet all too many do so. At the same time many people do not wear their seatbelts. Add up all these adverse behaviors and they have a very marked effect on the diseases that occur – chronic, complex diseases that last a life time and which are very expensive to treat.

Praise for Dr Schimpff

The craft of science writing requires skills that are arguably the most underestimated and misunderstood in the media world. Dumbing down all too often gets mistaken for clarity. Showmanship frequently masks a poor presentation of scientific issues. Factoids are paraded in lieu of ideas. Answers are marketed at the expense of searching questions. By contrast, Steve Schimpff provides a fine combination of enlightenment and reading satisfaction. As a medical scientist he brings his readers encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. As a teacher and as a medical ambassador to other disciplines he's learned how to explain medical breakthroughs without unnecessary jargon. As an advisor to policymakers he's acquired the knack of cutting directly to the practical effects, showing how advances in medical science affect the big lifestyle and economic questions that concern us all. But Schimpff's greatest strength as a writer is that he's a physician through and through, caring above all for the person. His engaging conversational style, insights and fascinating treasury of cutting-edge information leave both lay readers and medical professionals turning his pages. In his hands the impact of new medical technologies and discoveries becomes an engrossing story about what lies ahead for us in the 21st century: as healthy people, as patients of all ages, as children, as parents, as taxpayers, as both consumers and providers of health services. There can be few greater stories than the adventure of what awaits our minds, bodies, budgets, lifespans and societies as new technologies change our world. Schimpff tells it with passion, vision, sweep, intelligence and an urgency that none of us can ignore.

-- N.J. Slabbert, science writer, co-author of Innovation, The Key to Prosperity: Technology & America's Role in the 21st Century Global Economy (with Aris Melissaratos, director of technology enterprise at the John Hopkins University).