Where Americans Get Acute Care: Increasingly, It's Not At Their Doctor's Office
By Stephen R. Pitts, Emily R. Carrier, Eugene C. Rich and Arthur L. Kellermann
Historically, general practitioners provided first-contact care in the United States. Today, however, only 42 percent of the 354 million annual visits for acute care — treatment for newly arising health problems — are made to patients' personal physicians. The rest are made to emergency departments (28 percent), specialists (20 percent), or outpatient departments (7 percent). Although fewer than 5 percent of doctors are emergency physicians, they handle a quarter of all acute care encounters and more than half of such visits by the uninsured. Health reform provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that advance patient-centered medical homes and accountable care organizations are intended to improve access to acute care. The challenge for reform will be to succeed in the current, complex acute care landscape.
Comment: When you say "my physician," what do you mean? For most of us, that means the physician whom you call when you have a medical need. It's the physician who will always be there for you, or who will at least ensure that a colleague is available when taking an off-call breather or when on vacation. Yet, as this study shows, personal physicians or their associates provide care for only 42 percent of acute problems. Increasingly, patients can no longer rely on their doctor's office when they need acute care.
The policy community certainly recognizes the crisis in primary care. Much attention has been directed toward improving chronic care management within the primary care environment. Unfortunately, much of these efforts remain in the discussion phases, and only limited improvement has been made in the application of these relatively imprecisely defined concepts.
Yet what the primary care professional should be really good at - timely care of acute problems - has been almost completely ignored by the policy community. Physicians are too busy and don't have time to take care of their patients. (Although that thought certainly can be expanded upon, the irony is inescapable.)
What are some of the solutions?
* Emergency departments (EDs) already are bearing the largest portion of the overload. Queues in EDs are enough of a problem without adding to the waiting room backlog of many individuals who would be more appropriately cared for in a less intensive environment, such as a primary care practice. Adding to the problems with our overcrowded EDs is the burden of having to care for over one-half of all uninsured individuals with acute care problems.
* Patients in the next largest sector directly access specialists for their acute problems. Sometimes this may be quite appropriate, yet many times it may result in more expensive care for problems that would be more appropriately managed in a less expensive primary care environment. Also some patients who should be cared for by specialists may not be able to access them for several reasons, and, once again, the primary care physician would be in a better position to enable that access for the patient.
* Outpatient departments of integrated health systems appropriately may fulfill the role as the acute care provider as long as arrangements are made for access outside of clinic hours. These departments are usually associated with larger institutions, and, as such, would never be much more than a niche provider of acute care services.
* Retail clinics are capable of providing only the most basic of acute care services, and further fragment the coordinated care that should be provided in the primary care environment. Further, retail clinics skim off the easy, cash paying "customers" (a more appropriate term than "patients" in this retail environment). The same is true of urgent care centers and their customers, though they are usually capable of caring for a greater variety of problems.
* Concierge physicians do provide greater personal attention, but for very high fees that most of us cannot afford. To provide this higher level of accessibility, they sharply reduce the number of patients in their practices, further compounding the problem of the critical shortage of primary care physicians.
* Community health centers (CHCs) fulfill an important role in primary care, especially because they usually provide access for underserved patients in underserved communities. They provide acute care services during clinic hours, though patients often must rely on EDs when the clinics are closed. Most CHCs continue to struggle with finances. Also, most have difficulties in obtaining the cooperation of an adequate variety of specialists in providing care for more complex problems.
Members of Congress are quite aware of the profound deficiencies in our primary care infrastructure, so they included some measures in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) designed to address this issue. Will they help?
Funds are being allocated for primary care training programs. That is certainly a step in the right direction, but the funds are quite limited and will hardly make a dent in the problem.
More funds are being allocated for community health centers, again certainly a beneficial measure, but one which falls far short of meeting the need.
Some Medicare funds are being shifted from other services to primary care but not enough to even begin to narrow the compensation gap between primary care and the surgical specialists. Why would medical students, saddled with education debt, choose primary care with its long hours and modest pay, when specialties promise higher pay and more free time?
PPACA contains measures to promote the medical home model - theoretically the ideal primary care model. Although medical home demonstration projects are under way, it will be a long time before the specifics of the model will be precisely defined and ready for universal application. Further, the logistics of permeating the nation with medical homes may be beyond the capabilities of our public and private stewards working within the limitations of our dysfunctional financing system. Though the medical home model shows great promise, we need a financing system that will make it much more feasible.
The great hope of PPACA has been pinned on accountable care organizations (ACOs). This Health Affairs article defines ACOs as "integrated or virtually integrated delivery systems that will provide care for a defined population in a range of settings, linked by health information technology." The supporters of ACOs have described everything from full service integrated health care delivery systems to "virtual" systems that are not connected by much more than an information technology system.
Although the providers of health care may seek to create innovative ACO systems that theoretically would improve patient care, it is likely that the emphasis will be on, not just controlling, but actually reducing spending. The ghost of managed care past will be embellished through the "integrated and accountable" efforts of the insurers partnering with health delivery entrepreneurs. Only the patients, patient-oriented health care professionals, and the patient-oriented hospitals will be losers.
Whatever you need - preventive services, continuing care for your chronic condition, or timely management of an acute problem - wouldn't it be nice if you always had available your own personal physician's team to meet your needs? With our fragmented, dysfunctional system of financing health care, it is unlikely that in the future this will be more than a dream for the majority of us.
If we had our own Medicare-for-all monopsony (single purchaser of health care) it could become a reality for all of us. We would simply insist that a primary care system coordinating a full complement of specialized services is all that we're going to pay for. The insurers and health profession entrepreneurs can take a hike.