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Welcome To The Information Age, Primary Care

For 18 years, primary care providers steadily have been eclipsed by “specialists.”  It is no longer rare to hear calls for these competent generalists to drive straight to the scrap heap in order to be refitted as procedural, money-making Humvees.  What may be implied by this scenario is that primary care providers are selling out so as to allow nurse practitioners to be a more economical, efficient and smarter primary care provider. In fact, such ideas are not impossible if primary care doesn’t take control of their own destiny and invest in their own future. Technology will prove such a pivotal investment.

In my June 10 post, I discussed the five cornerstones of 21st century medical care as presented by a book published by the Institutes of Medicine entitled Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health Systems for the 21st Century.  The first cornerstone presented a communication-centered medical practice and abandoned the traditional brick-and-mortar idea that “the answers to all medical questions must be delayed until the patient is seen in the office.” Rather than the doctor being the last person to know what’s happening to a patient, a communication-centered model puts doctors at the front of the office, answering phones, emails and internet-generated questions through the day, allowing the practitioner to be the first ones to know what’s happening with our patients. This model could eliminate up to 66% of today’s office visits while simultaneously improving speed of delivery of care, convenience, access, quality and reduce costs.

The second cornerstone that primary care needs to invest in and build is an advanced information management system, which still does not exist.  An electronic medical record (EMR) that replaces a paper chart does not adequately explain the real potential of a tool that could transform the generalist.

Information in the communication-centered practice is managed differently than in traditional models.  The health care provider, surrounded by phones and computers, is linked to a powerful network with electronic medical records, health information databases,  sensitivity-specificity measurements, medical literature, and information about local facilities such as laboratories, pharmacies  x-rays, and consultants and their costs, just to name a few linkages.

Imagine information no longer limited by what is in the doctor’s head, but rather, doctors who can access and find the answer to any medical question within seconds by having bookmarks that extend through an entire medical library, and searching for answers would be as easy as:  The evidence based guidelines treatment for this problem is “click”… The differential diagnosis for night sweats is “click”… The medicines known to cause “weird smells” as a side effect are “click”… The cost of that test is “click”… The three labs closest to your home where I could fax the order are “click”…The sensitivity and specificity for this test or that symptom or that physical finding to be associated with lupus is “click”…The recommended treatment for this fracture is “click”…The three best articles for helping patients manage and educate themselves about their cholesterol are “click”… The telephone number to arrange setting up the test is, “click”… The facts and comparison for this medicine is… “click” The video link demonstrating the Canalith repositioning maneuvers is in your email box… “click.” Primary care providers help patients work through this information, discerning what is of utmost importance to their medical situation and issue. As it is said, “The role of the expert is to know what to ignore.”

Excellent primary health care requires continuous communication between doctors and patients so as to respond through the evolving and unpredictable twists and turns of illness and treatment . Doctors likewise need connection to the highest quality information and recording systems so as to actualize the science of best “healers”. The idea that doctors should always know the answer to a problem by using memory alone is as misguided as insisting mathematicians return to pencil and paper calculations to prove that they are “real” mathematicians.    Despite the potential, primary health care has remained timid to challenge the unexamined assumptions behind the limits of  Hippocrates medical practice. Were Hippocrates to return today I imagine him asking, “What have you done?”

Our patients need doctors to step up to the plate and go to bat for them. We as doctors need it too.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Alan Dappen, MD

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