The crisis of primary care physicians

Annie Brewster

Getty Images  MRS. J. LOOKED baffled and hurt. I had just explained that I would no longer be her primary care doctor. I was leaving the field after just three years. “I have had three different primary care doctors over the past 10 years,” she said. “You can’t leave now. I was just starting to feel comfortable. I am getting older now. I can’t keep changing doctors!”

Primary care is in crisis. Current primary care doctors are quitting, and medical students are pursuing other specialties. Primary care has lost its attractiveness as a profession because of poor compensation and plummeting job satisfaction. Primary care physicians are in short supply, and in Massachusetts, this problem has intensified in the wake of healthcare reform, as more than 300,000 previously uninsured individuals have joined in the search for available doctors.

As a former primary care physician, I am most troubled by the antagonistic state of the patient-doctor relationship. The system sets us against each other. Like many in the field, I chose primary care because I love people. I wanted to take care of the whole person, body and mind. I wanted the intimacy that comes with knowing your patients well and following them over many years. These goals are difficult to achieve in primary care today. After two years in my practice, I walked into an exam room one day and introduced myself to a patient. “We have met before,” she replied, clearly aggravated. I was horrified and saddened.

Patients are angry, and rightly so. They feel frustrated by the inability to get timely appointments with their physicians, rushed by the 15-minute visits and the seemingly harried doctors, ignored when they do not receive letters with lab results or follow-up phone calls. They feel disrespected when they come to their medical appointments on time and then sit in the waiting room for 45 minutes. All of these feelings are justified. We are not offering high-quality care.

Doctors feel angry, too. We have too many patients. It is not uncommon for a full-time primary care doctor to have upwards of 3,000 patients. It is impossible to know all of these individuals well, to give adequate focus to each person’s unique situation, to sift through the piles of paperwork and lab data daily. Our days are divided into 15-minute sessions, back to back. We move frantically from exam room to exam room, trying desperately not to fall behind in our schedule. We are given incentives to see patients as quickly as possible. We live in fear of litigation.

We are drowning, and in this overwhelmed state we lose our ability to take good care of people. Outwardly, we may feel resentful and burdened. Underneath, many of us feel loss, deep sadness, and personal failure.

This rift between patient and doctor is painful and destructive to the core of medicine: the therapeutic relationship. In an environment where patients and doctors don’t know each other well and appointments are rushed, it is inevitable that more medical errors occur and that resources are wasted as expensive tests are substituted for communication. By contrast, research indicates that medicine practiced in the context of solid primary care relationships allows for earlier detection of chronic diseases, and, ultimately, better outcomes and monetary savings, to say nothing of patient and doctor satisfaction

In this election year, patients and doctors need to come together to support healthcare reform aimed at revitalizing primary care. To begin, our medical reimbursement system must be restructured. Our payment system values invasive treatments and procedures over time spent talking with your doctor. We need to reset these compensation levels to favor communication, care coordination, disease prevention, and chronic disease management. Doctors should be rewarded for keeping patients well. Incentives should be based on quality outcomes and efficient resource use, not on patient volume.

Most important, primary care physicians should be valued as team leaders and advocates, poised to help patients navigate the complex medical system. There is no reason why so many patients like Mrs. J. need to feel lost and abandoned in a country that spends far more on healthcare than any nation in the world.

Dr. Annie Brewster is an urgent care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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