Primary care is ever the Cinderella-esque tragedy. Ever so maligned, ever engulfed in misery and never really the belle of the ball like she rightfully deserves to be. There may be reasons galore to this. Not least of which is the way primary care work is perceived in this country.
Let me illustrate.
The primary care attending I work with recounted a story from the early 2000s. As is usually the case with visits at the primary care doctor, one day she took care of a sixty something lady with a slew of medical problems: diabetes, heart failure, respiratory disease, high blood pressure and depression. Additionally, the lady had recently lost her husband and had an agonizingly traumatic bereavement. She spent time counseling her. In addition to all that she had to take care of a retinue of screening and preventive health measures that the primary care physician has to coordinate.
At the end of it all, the lady had a little wart on her great toe that she wanted fulgurated. As a makeshift measure the doctor removed the wart with liquid nitrogen, in a procedure that took less than 5 minutes.
In all the office visit took almost an hour. Orchestrating and coordinating her care took an intense amount of patience, attention to detail and diligence on part of the doctor. Assuming responsibility for the management of such an array of medical conditions is an onerous task by any yardstick.
Some time later, her reimbursements for the visit arrived. She had been reimbursed more for the makeshift procedure that lasted less than 5 minutes over all the rest of the care that she had rendered on the lady!
Such asymmetrical compensation approach produces adverse incentives. Therefore we have family physicians who have to train in minor podiatric and orthopedic procedures like nail clipping and intra-articular injections to make a little extra income to pay their bills. It’s been well established that a well-rounded primary and preventive care is the best health intervention at a systems level. Such routine care can ensure good health while preventing expensive care at the sub-specialists that may accrue later on. However there is no real incentive for the primary care physician to provide such economical care while there is every incentive for the interventionists to jump onto expensive procedures that often are a result of poor primary care and prevention.
It may pay the primary care physician well to start doing more office based procedures, but that beats the point. The point is the recognition of the fact that the meticulous, thoughtful and cerebral work done by a primary care physician is as valuable, if not more, than the procedural work done by interventionists. After all, despite the thankless compensation, the work done by the primary care physician adds way productive life years to people’s lives per dollar spent than that done by interventionists for the same dollar spent.
Until we are able to recognise such a fact, primary care’s fairy Godmother will never arrive, she will never be the belle of the ball. And as long as primary care is not the center of the attraction, healthcare in this country will be eternally doomed to cost overruns that threaten to sink the entire boat on their weight.
Kiran Raj Pandey is an internal medicine resident who blogs at page59.