Internal medicine is dead, will concierge physicians thrive?

by Steven Knope, MD

For the last several years, writers in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association have authored doomsday editorials about the prognosis of primary care medicine. There has been much discussion about the fact that internists and family practitioners cannot keep pace with rising overheads and falling reimbursement under the traditional third-party payment system.

Paraphrasing a recent story published in The New York Times, an internist in Massachusetts who practices under the new RomneyCare program said this: “Every time I see a Medicare patient, it is the equivalent of giving them a ten-dollar bill. I have a six month wait to see a new patient. I run from room-to-room. I can barely make my overhead. I’ve never felt so disrespected in my entire life.”

So is this all just whining and political hyperbole or is internal medicine really dying? The answer to this question was revealed to me by a colleague last weekend while I was at the hospital. I had been called to the ER for one of my patients who was hemorrhaging on the blood thinner, Coumadin. The ER doctor looked at me and said, “You are a dying breed.” I laughed and said, “Yes, I know…but why do you say this?” He responded, “See that list of 9 doctors’ names and phone numbers up there on the wall? You are one of the last of 9 doctors who still admits his own patients to this hospital when they get sick. All of the other internists and family practitioners have abandoned hospital medicine and limit their practice to the office.” I knew that this was a profound statement and it shocked me; but I did not fully digest its implications until I had stabilized my patient and started my drive home.

The hospital where I practice has over 700 doctors on staff. The fact that only 9 of us still take care of our own patients when they are hospitalized answered the question about internal medicine’s future. It is no longer an issue of whether traditional internal medicine can survive; the facts are – at least outside of the concierge model – internal medicine is already dead.

What are the consequences for patients? What happens to the average person in Tucson, Arizona when he or she gets chest pain, develops pneumonia or has a seizure? Can they reach their internist or family practitioner for a medical emergency? Most patients who call their primary care doctor for a medical emergency can’t even reach his staff during normal office hours. Instead, they will hear a recording on an answering machine, directing them to go to “call 911” for any medical emergency.

Once in the ER, the “doctorless” patient will be admitted to a hospital physician, who is unknown to them. This so-called “hospitalist”, who is a salaried shift-worker, will put in his 12 hours, and then go home. He is a doctor who knows nothing about the patient’s medical history. He has never met the patient. There will be no call from the hospital doctor to the primary care doctor in the office to get a thorough medical history. There will be no medical records transferred to the hospitalist. The hospitalist will attempt to get the best medical history he can from the patient, make some quick medical decisions, and then pass the patient off to one of his colleagues when his shift ends. And so it goes. No continuity of care, no understanding of the patient; the sick person now becomes a “case of pneumonia” or “the stroke in bed 3” to a group of unknown, rotating professionals.

As fewer and fewer young doctors go into internal medicine and family practice, and thousands of primary care doctors retire early due to financial pressures, the primary care shortage will only worsen. Not only will there be no primary internists to take care of their own patients in the hospital, there will be fewer internists available to see patients in the office setting. This inevitable vacuum of internists and family practitioners (traditional diagnosticians) will be filled by nurse practitioners and medical assistants; people with far less training and expertise than an M.D.. If you are fortunate enough to have a good nurse practitioner, you will eventually be referred to an appropriate specialist, who will treat one of your medical problems. If you are not so lucky, a nurse or medical assistant may miss an uncommon or rare diagnosis; he or she may misdiagnose the “headache” that is actually an aneurysm, the “flu symptoms” that turn out to be meningitis, or the “gallbladder problem” that turns out to be a heart attack. Bad things will inevitably happen when doctors are replaced by medical assistants. It is simply a matter of statistics. All doctors make mistakes, but those with less training make more.

As a concierge physician, people often ask me how this move toward a government-run healthcare system will affect me professionally. Speaking honestly, I tell them that it will help my practice, but I do not think this is good news for the country. As an independent concierge doctor, I am not subject to the rules or fees set by Medicare or Medicaid, nor do I deal with third-party insurance carriers or HMOs. I work for my patients, not a third-party with a conflicting financial agenda. As someone who practices full-service internal medicine, the demand for my services will continue to increase. However, this outlook about my own practice does not make me happy. I have small children. I am concerned about their future. I am concerned about what the changes in primary care will do the future of American medicine; what will happen if the art of internal medicine is completely lost. I am worried about what it will mean to the efficiency of medicine as a whole, to have no diagnosticians and clinicians to treat the majority of problems that do not need a specialist.

I have found a unique niche in medicine, which allows me to truly practice what I was trained to do. For most of my colleagues, however, this is no longer the case. They too were trained to care for patients from the office, to the hospital, to the ICU. Now, they no can longer afford to take care for their patients when they develop life-threatening illnesses. They are now “clinic doctors.” Their hospital skills have atrophied. They will never practice comprehensive medicine again. For them, the game is already over. For them, internal medicine is already dead. For their patients, and the society as a whole, this is a great loss.

Steven Knope is a concierge physician and author of Concierge Medicine: A New System To Get The Best Healthcare. This post was originally published in The Healthcare Entrepreneur Blog.

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