Will any of these solutions save primary care?

Researchers at the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Robert Graham Center have estimated that the U.S. will require 52,000 additional primary care physicians by 2025 due to the effects of population growth, aging, and insurance expansion. Since it takes at least eleven years of post-secondary education to train a family physician, even a renewed surge of student interest in primary care careers is unlikely to meet this anticipated need.

Another recent Graham Center study concluded that expanding the scope of practice of nurse practitioners and physician assistants would still result in an overall shortage of primary care clinicians.

This month’s issue of Health Affairs contains several proposals to expand the capacity of the existing primary care workforce. Scott Shipman and Christine Sinsky review effective strategies for reducing waste and improving efficiency in office practice: delegating clerical and administrative tasks, using medical assistants as work “flow managers,” establishing non-physician protocols for routine chronic care and test ordering, and moving some types of acute care visits online. If each practicing primary care clinician could free up capacity to see one more patient each working day, that would translate into 30 to 40 million additional visits per year.

Another review by Jonathan Weiner and colleagues projects increases in efficiency and reductions in future demand for office visits from expansion of health information technology and e-health applications. Based on the published literature, they estimate that even incomplete implementation of existing technologies could increase physician visit capacity by up to 21 percent.

Finally, Arthur Kellermann and colleagues propose creating the new occupation of “primary care technician,” analogous to the existing profession of emergency medical technicians (EMTs), who provide the vast majority of first-contact emergency medicine in the field. This is their job description:

What we need are primary care extenders with local ties and cultural competence of community health care workers, the procedural skills of PAs, and ready access to the knowledge of NPs and primary care physicians. They should be easy to train, inexpensive to employ, and capable of working miles apart from their supervising providers … Primary care technicians could be quickly trained to deliver basic preventive, minor illness, and stable chronic disease care to populations that currently lack access to care.

Are these proposals, taken individually or in combination, adequate solutions to the problem of too few U.S. family physicians?

Kenneth Lin is a family physician who blogs at Common Sense Family Doctor.

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