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Why It Sucks To Be A Primary Care Physician

DrRich entered medical school 40 years ago with every intention of becoming a general medical practitioner, and indeed he became one. But after only a year in practice as a generalist, he found himself so frustrated with the frivolous limitations and the superfluous obligations that even then were being externally imposed on these supposedly revered professionals, that DrRich altered course and spent several years retraining to become a cardiac electrophysiologist.

(Electrophysiology is a field of endeavor so arcane as to be mystifying even to other cardiologists. DrRich hoped that the officious regulators and stone-witted insurance clerks would be so confused –- and possibly intimidated –- by the mysterious doings of electrophysiologists that they would leave him alone. Happily, this ploy worked for almost 15 years.)

Still, DrRich has always held general practitioners (now called primary care physicians or PCPs) in the highest regard, if for no other reason than these brave souls –- unlike DrRich himself, who cut and ran at his earliest opportunity –- have stuck it out.

But, as we all know, the practice of primary care medicine is today in crisis. Today’s PCPs are mostly looking to get out as soon as they can afford to do so, and today’s medical students are avoiding primary care in droves.

But not for the reasons most often claimed. DrRich’s contention is that doctors are abandoning primary care medicine for reasons that actually have relatively little to do with low pay and high educational debt. The real reasons have much more to do with the fact that primary care medicine has been systematically and purposefully demeaned and diminished, to the point that it has become nearly an untenable choice for most doctors.

Accordingly, every now and then DrRich likes to point out –- for the edification of his readers –- some of the ways in which this fundamental devaluing of primary care medicine is being accomplished.

And so, here’s another reason it sucks being a PCP:

PCPs whose patients fail to quit smoking are now at risk not only of being publicly labeled as low-quality physicians, but also of being sued.

To see how this works, dear reader, DrRich asks you to place yourself, for a few minutes and for the sake of empathy, in the position of a modern American PCP.

As a PCP, one of the major banes of your existence is the struggle you must make during each and every “patient encounter” to get through a long Pay-for-Performance Checklist (different checklists for different patients, depending on their insurer). Completing these checklists, within the 7.5 minutes that have been graciously allotted to you for such encounters, is of course critical in order to demonstrate to the appropriate healthcare accountants the adequacy of your performance as a modern, high-quality American physician.

One item that invariably appears on each of your mandatory checklists, doctor, has to do with counseling your patient on smoking cessation. It’s likely you may have thought this to be one of the less objectionable mandates you must accomplish during each patient visit. After all, you can get through your well-rehearsed pitch on smoking cessation in 20 seconds or less (unless you are dealing with one of those rare patients who is actually serious about trying to quit), and thereby make up some of the precious time, from your 7.5 minutes, that you have already spent achieving some more challenging check mark (trying, perhaps, to talk a diabetic patient into taking the extraordinary steps necessary to get his hemoglobin A1c down that last 0.5 percent to target).

So: 20 seconds spent on smoking cessation. Check.

But, whoa. Not so fast there, Dr. Welby.

Did you know there are guidelines for physicians on smoking cessation? Did you know that these guidelines were devised under the auspices of the federal government, by a committee of individuals who are anti-smoking zealots (not that there’s anything wrong with that)?

From this latter fact, of course, there are certain things you will already know about these guidelines before you ever see them. You will know that the guidelines must be very long and detailed and tedious, because a) they are federal guidelines, and b) they are devised by people whose one and only mission in life –- a mission they clearly believe is far more important than, say, oil spills, terrorism, global warming, jobs, or achieving fine and durable erections upon demand –- is to save the world from the scourge of smoking. And now, these zealots have been granted the authority (i.e., the federally-approved authority to generate medical guidelines) to make it your primary mission in life, too.

Now, doctor, have a peek at the actual guidelines, which you can find here. Notice, first, that the federal guidelines for physicians on smoking cessation are 196 pages long. Notice how they step you through the process of counseling, and then step you through each of the measures you must take in order to guarantee that your patient achieves total success. And notice that an early branch point in the process of counseling is the one where the patient informs you whether he/she is willing to go any further with efforts at smoking cessation; and notice further that when the patient concludes that he/she is indeed NOT willing to go any further, thank you very much for your concern, the guidelines do not relieve you of further immediate obligations –- no –- but instead specify additional interventions you must now, at this moment, embark upon with this unwilling patient, which are “designed to increase their motivation to quit.”

The brash sales techniques required of you by the federally-sanctioned, smoking-cessation guidelines would embarrass even a telemarketer, or an annuity salesperson.

This, of course, is all to say: Your 20-second spiel on the evils of smoking just doesn’t cut the mustard, doctor. To really earn that smoking-cessation chit on your P4P checklist, you need to do a lot more than that. The 196 pages of deadly serious federal guidelines detail what that is.

Lest you are tempted to dismiss as an absurdity the expectation that you are actually supposed to cram 2 hours of anti-smoking counseling into a 7.5 minute patient visit, there’s one more thing you ought to know.

One John Banzhaf, Executive Director and Chief Counsel for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who bills himself as the “law professor who masterminded litigation against the tobacco industry,” is not taking lightly, doctor, your obvious laxity in following federal guidelines on smoking cessation. Accordingly, some time ago he sent letters to each of the 50 state health commissioners warning them that he will soon begin instigating medical malpractice suits, on behalf of smokers who continue to smoke as the result of their doctor’s refusal to follow federal guidelines to the letter.

Mr. Banzhaf informs the commissioners that “physicians are killing more than 40,000 American smokers each year by failing to follow federal guidelines.” That’s right, doctor, you’re killing them. (Cigarettes don’t kill people; people kill people.) Specifically he invokes your sacred obligation to “warn the smoking patient about the many dangers of smoking and provide effective medical treatment for the majority who wish to quit.” (Emphasis DrRich’s.) That is, it’s your job not just to counsel them and treat them, but also to see that they actually succeed in quitting. If you don’t follow this mandate, you’re killing them. And you must pay.

When the federal government takes the pains necessary to draft detailed management guidelines for physicians, guidelines that, if followed as written, will save tens of thousands of lives each year, then surely society has every right to expect you to follow those guidelines to the letter –- and to save those lives.

This is such a brilliant scheme for ending smoking-related death and disability, one must wonder why it hasn’t yet been applied to other intractable medical problems. Just think of all the good that could be accomplished, for instance, by federal guidelines requiring PCPs to assure that each of their patients maintain an optimal body weight, follow an exemplary diet, exercise vigorously for at least an hour a day, maintain unfailingly positive attitudes, and work diligently at their allotted tasks each and every day (secure in the knowledge that adopting right thinking and right behaviors will be invaluable to our dear leaders, as they bravely go forth to assure the good of the whole).

In any case, doctor, consider these anti-smoking guidelines carefully next time you’re putting that little check mark next to “Smoking cessation counseling” on your P4P checklist, and ask yourself: “Have I really done all that I am obligated to do, under the law, to guarantee that this patient has lit up his last smoke?”

Making PCPs responsible for their patient’s personal choices and behaviors, of course, is a time-honored method of covert healthcare rationing. It gives doctors powerful incentives to invent mechanisms for avoiding patients who display obviously unhealthful lifestyles, thus making it relatively inconvenient for these patients to gain access to expensive healthcare services.

But more to the point of this post, it is yet another example of how micromanagement by politicians, activists and bureaucrats has come to infest the practice of primary care medicine, and to relegate PCPs to the diminished role of simply following the checklists continually produced by such as these. If this is what primary care medicine has come to at last, why would you expect anyone who has a choice to take such a career path?

DrRich, for one, does not believe the 10 to 15 percent increase in pay hinted at by Obamacare will change the calculus for PCPs very much, and in fact, if it does –- given all that is being done to primary care medicine –- we should all be very much distressed by the implications.

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

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One Response to “Why It Sucks To Be A Primary Care Physician”

  1. sura says:

    Primary Care Physicians get dumped on get no respect it is a NO-BALANCE, NO-QUALITY lifestyle. If you enter medicine at all, specialize. DO NOT BECOME AN INTERNIST or FAMILY PRACTICE doctor!

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