It’s time to free doctors from their boxes

The American health care system is set up to care for a certain subset of the population — sick people — people with chronic disease, acute illness, acute injury, and complex disorders like cancer or metabolic issues.

The problem is, this set up doesn’t create market incentives to care for the well effectively, or to identify those at risk for disease and efficiently and reliably intervene, at scale.

To reconcile this cognitive dissonance between sick-care and health-care, government agencies like CMS, are now funding population-based care strategies. The idea is, the health care system should anticipate patient needs at the population level, stratify those needs by risk, and disseminate preventative interventions locally, based on traditional indices like blood tests and screening protocols and emerging metrics like ICD-10 Z codes to identify social determinants of health.

Now that the federal government is redefining the relationship between communities and health systems, it seems logical to anticipate future opportunities to redesign one of the most outdated physician roles: the “doc in the box.”

But the baffling thing is, that is not what is happening.

Despite CMS’ new Accountable Health Communities model and the NIH’s recent Precision Medicine Initiative, it seems the latest innovations in health care delivery are aiming to do what we are already doing – better – to map the genome, decipher codes in our blood, and screen with increasing precision to identify disease earlier and decrease associated health complications and systems costs.

But the building-based, physician-centric, model of medicine America has relied on for decades, maybe even centuries, isn’t serving us well anymore. The hands-on, face-to-face, one-on-one, physician-patient relationship is changing and the bedside, fee-for-service paradigm doesn’t fit how patients access information and more importantly, doesn’t pay for keeping patients well.

Thinking outside the doc in a box

In the future, instead of caring for thousands of people in a primary care panel, I think physicians will “care” for hundreds of thousands of people across a grid. And they will provide that care, in teams.

The grid will be color-coded by risk factors. Incorporating data from smartphone usage, credit card spending behaviors, typographical maps of cities that chart access points for public transit, healthy food, parks and recreation, public learning, and other staples of public life. Those access points will be rated by the degree of mobility they generate — socially, economically, and physically. High-rated areas will become models for low-rated areas, and low-rated areas will be first in-line for public resources to re-engineer the environment people live and grow in. This model places mobility, equity, and the capacity to maximize human potential at the center of innovations that create and sustain health.

It also positions physicians among a team of professionals who operate integrated public systems. Those systems will be powered by data algorithms that understand the connections between human physiology and the lived experiences that nurture or threaten that physiology, to ultimately predict risk rather than simply identify existing disease, early.

If future systems can predict risk at scale and are oriented to respond those risks with mitigating resources or information that informs and supports patient decisions, then in the future, physicians will also be expected to be architects of resource distribution, partners in city planning, advocates for social justice, and champions of equity.

There will likely always be a need for physical care of patients with ailments that require treatments best administered at the bedside. But the advent of technology to provide remote care, analyze multi-variant data that predicts human behavior, and supports patient and provider decision-making with rapid access to information and resources, shifts the future of medical practice outside of buildings.

With a new legion of ancillary providers, it is time to free the doc in the box and expand the vision of medical care to include the future of physician practice.

Rhea Boyd is a pediatrician who blogs at rhea, md. and can be reached on Twitter@RheaBoydMD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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