Sunday, August 3, 2014

Reframing the Question of Doctor Frustration

There has been a lot of interest in the Daily Beast article written by Dr Daniela Drake, about very frustrated primary care physicians (PCP.) She quoted both Dr Kevin Pho and myself. Dr Drake noted that nine of 10 doctors would not recommend medicine to their children as a career and that 300 physicians commit suicide each year. “Simply put, being a doctor has become a miserable and humiliating undertaking.”  Dr Pho offered his own commentary here pointing out that “it is important to have the discussion on physician dissatisfaction….demoralized doctors are in no position to care for patients…To be sure many people with good intentions are working toward solving the healthcare crisis. But the answers they’ve come up with are driving up costs and driving out doctors.”  
Yes, it is definitely true that PCPs are very frustrated. In a series of in depth interviews, almost all tell me that their major frustration is not enough time with each patient. No time to listen, no time to think, no time to do critical activities. Why? Because they have to see too many patients per day in order to cover overheads. A few of those that I interviewed have left clinical practice because of these frustrations; others felt that they needed to do “something, soon,” to improve their situation.
But patients are frustrated as well. They find they have to wait a long time for an appointment, sit in the apt named waiting room and then get just a few minutes with the PCP. They observe that the doctor interrupts them within just a few moments, never lets them tell their full story, isn’t really listening and shuttles them off to a specialist or gives them a prescription while never really explaining in their terms what is going on. And they know that they pay a lot for their insurance with premiums rising every year along with lots of co-pays and deductibles. So they are in no mood to feel sorry for the PCP who earns, according a Medscape survey, about $170-180,000 per year.
The usual response of the medical community is to point out the years of education and training, the high debt loads, the hours of work and the calls at night. That other doctors earn much more. That there is an ever growing burden of paperwork, of wasted calls to the insurers and nonfunctioning EHRs. That the responsibilities are high and what could be more important than your health. All true -- but it falls on deaf ears for the family with an income of <$51,000 (median US household income in 2011, per census).
One major problem is that the average person just does not know what really good primary care could do for them and their health over time. Nor do they appreciate that primary care is or at least can be relatively inexpensive. We (the collective medical community) have not done a good job explaining the value of outstanding primary care.
So let’s reframe the frustration question.
How can patients get superior care from excellent energized and satisfied practitioners at a reasonable cost all leading to not only care of disease but prevention of illness and preservation of well-being? And if this can be achieved, will it lead to more students choosing primary care as a rewarding career?
Government is not likely to solve the problem nor will most insurers. It will be up to PCPs and their patients to create a new primary care delivery paradigm. And doctors need to take the initiative to educate the public and lobby for useful change.
There are many options. One is direct primary care (DPC) in its many formats such as pay per visit, a monthly membership fee or retainer-based (concierge) models. The latter two with their limited patient panels are often thought of as only for the elite or the rich but membership or retainer based practices need not be expensive. Several have been written up as “blue collar” plans  with low fees yet limited numbers of patients, same day and lengthy appointments, 24/7 cell phone availability and even free or reduced cost medications and lab testing.
I live in Maryland where I looked up the 2014 Blue Cross (not for profit) premiums in the local exchange. A Bronze plan for a 55 year old costs $3660 per year with a $6000 deductible, essentially a “catastrophic” plan. A Platinum plan costs $7728 per year with no deductible but up to $2000 in hospital co-pays. If the individual requires major medical care, the total out of pocket costs for premium and deductibles/copays in either plan is therefore about $9700. Buy the Bronze plan, create a health savings account and then pay the membership/retainer with tax advantaged dollars. The individual gets high quality health care in a setting where it is to the physician’s advantage to keep the patient well. Alternatively, stay with the Platinum plan and get a 12 minute visit.
As to the PCP shortage and patient education issues, Primary Care Progress is one of a number of new organizations sprouting up to bring current and potential PCPs together. To educate patients, they have produced a useful 2 minute animation.
Looking ahead, insurers might one day decide it is logical to buy the membership or retainer for their insured’s. The cost would be rapidly repaid may times over. Likewise employers could do the same leading to a healthier, more satisfied workforce with higher productivity and reduced total health care premium costs. Sounds radical but it is actually logical. Patients would get great care and maintain good health. Providers get to be the true healers they always aspired to be. The total costs of care would come way down. Maybe even more students would choose primary care as a career. Win-win-win-win.

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).