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Should Primary Care Be Abandoned?

In his last post, DrRich pointed out to his PCP friends that their chosen profession of primary care medicine is dead and buried – with an official obituary and everything – and that it is pointless for PCPs to waste their time worrying about “secret shoppers” and other petty annoyances.

It is time for you PCPs to abandon “primary care” altogether. It is time to move on.

Walking away from primary care should not be a loss, because actually, primary care has long since abandoned you. Whatever “primary care” may have once been, it has now been reduced to strict adherence to “guidelines,” 7.5 minutes per patient “encounter,” placing chits on various “Pay for Performance” checklists, striving to induce high-and-mighty healthcare bureaucrats (who wouldn’t know a sphygmomanometer from a sphincter) to smile benignly at your humble compliance with their dictates, and most recently, competing for business with nurses.

This is not really primary care medicine. It’s not medicine at all. It’s something else. But whatever it is, it’s what has now been designated by law as “primary care,” and anyone the government unleashes to do it (whether doctors, nurses, or high-school graduates with a checklist of questions) now are all officially Primary Care Practitioners.

What generalist physicians (heretofore known as primary care physicians) need to realize is that “primary care” has been dumbed-down to the point where abandoning it is no loss; indeed, it ought to be liberating to walk away from it.

The beauty is that to survive and flourish, you don’t really need to change your medical ideals or even your medical behavior (unless, of course, you have bought in to the strict adherence to guidelines, checklists, etc.) You simply need to practice medicine exactly as you were trained to practice it – taking all the time needed for careful, thoughtful attention to detail; seeking out the meaningful nuances in your patients’ medical conditions; personalizing both diagnostic and therapeutic recommendations not only for your patient’s medical problems, but also for their psychosocial and economic circumstances; relishing the challenge of making the difficult diagnoses, and managing the complex medical disorders that so often break from the designated norm; and treating guidelines as just that, as often-helpful guideposts, rather than mandates; and most important of all, embracing the classic doctor-patient relationship in all its particulars, and having the latitude to become a true advocate for your individual patients within a hostile healthcare system. In short, you can go back to being a real doctor, and not a cipher in some bureaucrat’s database.

There are only two things you need to do to move in this direction.

First, abandon the “primary care” label. Remember, primary care is now the standards-based, checklist-driven, one-size-fits all, “high-quality” system of practice imposed by government bureaucrats, a practice which is now open to both doctors and nurses (and, in the future, most likely to others).  That’s not what you do. So find a new name for yourself.

The choice of nomenclature is yours, of course, but DrRich humbly suggests “Advanced Care Medicine.”

What you do is not primary care; it’s far more advanced than that, and nobody could do it without the sort of extensive training you have. “Advanced Care Medicine” captures that notion. This name also opens the possibility of referrals from the new-style, government-sanctioned “PCPs,” some of whom undoubtedly will come to recognize that at least 20% of their patients will present as clinical puzzles that do not fit very well with any of the standard medical diagnoses with which they are familiar, and another 20% will not respond to the recommended therapy as the guidelines say they must. These patients obviously will need advanced management, management beyond what a modern primary care practitioner is able (or allowed) to offer. Why not refer them to an ACM physician?

Second, you need to establish practices whereby you are paid directly by your patients. You need to do this because it is the only method available for avoiding the bureaucratic nightmare that wrecked your former profession of primary care in the first place. Payment models can be established that will allow most patients – anyone, say, who can afford a cell phone contract or cable TV – to participate.  (Making your services readily available will blunt the obligatory attacks of “elitist!” which will be aimed your way in the attempt to shame you back into the primary care gulag). There really ought to be nothing particularly revolutionary about this kind of practice, since it was the norm throughout most of the history of medicine until 40 years ago. It is likely that many patients who today would never consider paying any doctor out of pocket will eventually change their minds, once it becomes apparent to them the depths to which primary care medicine has fallen in the United States, and that as a result their lives are on the line.

In any case, when you are paid by your patients, you answer to your patients (not some hostile bureaucrat), and the quality of the care you deliver is measured by your patients (and not some other hostile bureaucrat).  There are no externally imposed time-limits to your office visits, no checklists you must complete, no bizarre documentation rules you must follow for reimbursement, no guidelines you must obey even if it makes no sense for your patient. Those things are for the modern, government-approved “PCPs” to concern themselves with, poor souls, and you do not dwell among these unfortunates anymore.

And happy it is that primary care medicine is killed off now, at this time – because time is of the essence. DrRich has already pointed out that an essential feature of our new Progressive healthcare system will be to make it illegal (in the name of fairness) for individuals to spend their own money on their own healthcare. For Advanced Care Medicine (or whatever you may choose to call it) to become a viable path, you’ve got to begin immediately to make it a fait accompli – to establish it as something patients value, and which they fully expect as a personal healthcare option, and furthermore, as an indispensable referral resource for those sad souls – physicians, nurses and others – who retain the label “PCP,” and who will be powerless (if not clueless) when it comes to providing complex medical care to patients who come in with a difficult diagnosis, or more than one diagnosis, or who otherwise display guideline-unfriendliness.

So at the end of the day, the fact that Obamacare has formally brought primary care medicine to a merciful end may turn out to be a positive thing.

And by all means, don’t sweat President Obama’s “secret shoppers,” or any other cutesy ploys which our policy experts may dream up in the future to amuse themselves, and to distract you from the real issue (which is the demise of your profession). When those phony secret shoppers call for a phony appointment, simply tell them you have openings for any patient, at very reasonable rates and at at a time of their choosing, and that they can see a real doctor who will treat them with dignity, care, expertise, and respect. Or on the other hand, you can remind them, they can take their chances with one of those embittered or indifferent, underutilized or under-trained, oppressively over-regulated or complaisantly submissive, new-style PCPs specified under Obamacare.

Even Obama’s secret shoppers would have to think twice about a choice like that.

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*


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2 Responses to “Should Primary Care Be Abandoned?”

  1. Stacey Robinson MD says:

    Amen! Hallelujah! Love it! Very well written, honest and open, and I couldn’t agree more. I opened a direct-care practice 3 years ago and it was the best thing I have done in my 15 years of practicing medicine. I can finally give patients the care they deserve. I occasionally have pangs of guilt that I was abandoning my colleagues who are stuck in the hamster wheel but I know that I am doing what is best for my patients.

  2. inchoate but earnest says:

    We had considered engaging Dr. Rich’s musings about the “death” of primary care, until we read and re-read this bit of his(her?) ramble, and realized the futility of the pursuit with a mind so firmly made up:

    “….most important of all, embracing the classic doctor-patient relationship in all its particulars, and having the latitude to become a true advocate for your individual patients within a hostile healthcare system. In short, you can go back to being a real doctor….”

    the “classic” doctor-patient relationship; how sweet the sound. How cloying. How indicative, simultaneously, of how right Dr Rich is – that primary care as s/he envisions it is dead (in fact, that it never lived that way), and how oblivious Dr. Rich is to the reality – the reality – that that model never really worked all that well, for anyone.

    Health care – primary health care particularly, for our purposes here – NEEDS to be different, because it does not accomplish, does not support, many of the many primary health care jobs that so many people need done. It is too slow, too seldom, too top-down, too poor a fit between skills brought to task and tasks needing execution, too wetware-dependent. It’s inconvenient, it’s expensive, it’s of limited value. For far too many people, it doesn’t work, and hasn’t really worked, for a long, long time.

    And the insistent force bringing its demise, Dr Rich, is NOT Obamacare, or “some bureaucrats”, or an uncaring payment system – it’s YOUR PATIENTS, reminding you, in their inchoate way, that it is not about you.

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