Next in a series.
Good question. You call for an appointment and are told it will be about 20 days. You arrive on time only to sit in the apt named waiting room for 40 minutes. Finally you get to see your primary care doctor (PCP). You begin to explain why you came in but are interrupted within about 23 seconds even though it would have only taken you about 6 more seconds to finish your “opening statement.” The doctor asks a few questions, does a brief exam, gives you a prescription, suggests you see the specialist and off you go, all within 8-12 minutes. At the exit desk you are told you owe a $30 co-pay. “Visa or MasterCard please.” And in no time at all you are out the door.
No time for delving deeply into your issues. No time to build trust. No time for compassion. No time for actual healing.
Why so quick? It is all in the numbers. At the risk of being boring, here they are. They might surprise you.
According to the New York Times a PCP earns on average $150,000 per year. A survey from Medscape pegs it at $170,000-180,000. That is about what a newly minted law student gets at a prestigious large firm or a just graduated MBA gets at a big consulting company. But how does our PCP actually earn that money?
If the PCP has a private practice, in order to earn $150,000, he or she needs to bring in about $350,000 to also cover office expenses. Given what insurers like BlueCross, Aetna, United Health Care, Medicare and Medicaid pay per visit, the doctor needs to see about 25 patients per day. That is $30 to the PCP’s pocket for each visit. No wonder the visit is so short.
Said a different way, the PCP has to see 15 patients to cover expenses. Any patients over 15 and the income goes to him or her. So the PCP works for others until about 2pm.
The typical PCP takes 24 phone calls per day, 17 emails, processes 12 prescription refills (above those handled during visits), and reviews 20 laboratory reports, 11 x-ray reports and 14 specialist consult reports. These are all done outside of the visit and obviously take substantial time.
Look at the numbers a different way. A PCP who worked for a well-known HMO in California earned $140,000 and was assigned a panel of 2,200 patients. That is $64 for each patient for the entire year. That is probably less than you spend taking your car for a twice yearly oil change and checkup. If each patient came in three times per year then each visit was worth $21. This PCP found herself highly stressed, unable to keep up to the level she thought appropriate and went home exhausted only to ignore her family and “crawl into bed realizing it would start all over again tomorrow.”
On the east coast, a highly regarded PCP told me that “I thought I was going to die, literally, if I kept this up. I could not give the type of care and attention that I felt was best for my patients, I could not be compassionate. All the things I treasured doing as a doctor had vanished.”
The answer is straightforward. Pay the PCP more. Not more in total (although that might also be appropriate) but more per visit and have the PCP take care of substantially fewer patients.
There are many ways to approach this. Increase the fee for service payment in return for more attention to, at least, those with chronic illnesses who need close care coordination. At least one example of this with a Blue Cross plan has worked well. In a capitated system, assign fewer patients but pay the same total amount to the PCP. Maybe 1,000 patients instead of 2,200 for that $140,000. Or if the population in the pool is high risk with either mostly elderly people or those with multiple chronic illnesses, set the capitation rate so that it works with just 300-500 patients. There are good examples of this being highly effective as well.
Yes, in each of these examples the amount of money going toward primary care per capita is increased but the total costs of care comes way down. It comes down because high quality primary care takes care of most issues, offers better preventive care and coordinates the care of those with chronic illnesses. This means less referrals to specialists, less unnecessary testing and prescriptions and fewer trips to the ER or the hospital.
For PCPs in private practice, they can switch to retainer or membership models where the patient pays directly (direct primary care) by the visit or on a monthly or annual basis for all primary care in a setting where the PCP only has 500-700 patients, offers same day appointments, access to his or her cell phone 24/7, and perhaps reduced cost laboratory testing and even generic medications. Some of these practices are quite affordable — “blue collar.” And the savings on drugs can often offset the membership fee.
Insurers should consider paying the retainer for those who buy a high deductible insurance policy since quality primary care substantially reduces the total costs of care. Employers could either buy the retainer or place an equal sum in an HSA for the employee who takes out a high deductible policy through the company. Alternatively, the company might initiate its own in house primary care clinic designed so that the employed/contracted PCP has only a reasonable number of employees to care for. In any of these models, the use of health coaches can further improve wellness, maintain health and assist with illness care.
The result: More time with the doctor. More time for the PCP to listen, more time to think, more time to diagnose and treat, more time to coordinate care for those with chronic illnesses and more time for better preventive medicine. So better care, better health, less frustrations, more satisfaction and much reduced total costs of care. Now you will no longer be wondering why the doctor allots you so little time.
Stephen C. Schimpff is a quasi-retired internist, professor of medicine and public policy, former CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center, senior advisor to Sage Growth Partners and is the author of The Future of Health-Care Delivery: Why It Must Change and How It Will Affect You.