Although these problems are huge, there is not much clear discussion of them.
Thus, it was encouraging to see the vaunted New England Journal of Medicine, the premier US journal of medicine, take up the issue of the "future of primary care." A few weeks ago, the journal published a series of commentaries on the issue,(1-6) and the transcript of a round table discussion among their authors.(7) It was touted as the views of experts on "the crisis in U.S. primary care."
Unfortunately, although the series acknowledged some surface characteristics of the US health care system that have lead to this crisis, it did not delve further into its causes.
On the surface, a major cause of the crisis is that payments to primary care physicians are so limited that we are driving them out of business, while we pay lavishly for new, high-technology, often risky and invasive procedures.
However, understanding how and why this happens requires dissecting layer after layer of complex details. Doing so can be frustrating, if not eye glazing, and this may be one reason why the discussion of this pivotal issue has been so limited.
The first layer of complexity was implicitly acknowledged, but not discussed in the NEJM series. Bear with me through it.
The First Layer of Causation: Low Payments for Face-to-Face Visits, Rising Overhead
Physicians are paid for each encounter with a patient. Their pay only covers what they do in the presence of the patient, and not other efforts on patients' behalf, e.g., communicating with patients when they are not in the office, communicating with other professionals, paperwork required by insurance companies, etc, etc. Furthermore, pay for office visits is available only in a very small number of categories, and the pay for more complex visits is not commensurate with the increase in time and effort that they require, so that physicians who spend a lot of time trying to deal with complex problems will not be paid commensurate with their work. Pay for office visits has not increased as fast as inflation, and certainly not as fast as the expenses of running physicians' offices, i.e., office overhead, has increased. Thus, to try to maintain income, and to support increasingly complex office operations and overhead, primary care physicians must limit the time they spend with any one patient.
The result is the 15 minute visit for nearly all patients. But it is ridiculous to try to manage complex problems in 15 minute visits. Furthermore, primary care physicians spend hours of unpaid time doing paperwork, communications, etc.
The NEJM special articles dealt briefly with the contrast between how primary care physicians and proceduralists are paid, and the adverse effects of the 15-minute visit. The series coordinator, Dr Thomas Lee, noted that "procedure-oriented specialties offer higher potential incomes."(1) Dr Allan H Goroll decried the "current volume-driven, fee-for-service approaches," the "piecework payment system that perpetuates our 'hamster-wheel' environment."(4) Dr Thomas Bodenheimer asserted that primary care physicians are"overstressed by large patient panels." He blamed this on "the over-burdened 15-minute clinician visit."(3) He mentioned the 15-minute visit three other times in his commentary. In the round table discussion that accompanied the articles, he protested, "it's the tyranny of the 15-minute visit. If you come in to your practice in the morning and you see that you have 12 to 15 15-minute visits in the morning and another 12 to 15 15-minute visits in the afternoon, and you know you can't do it all in 15 minutes...."(7) Finally, in the round table discussion that accompanied the series, Dr Katherine Treadway offered the longest and most impassioned discussion, first explaining the problem,
Since I’ve been in practice a long time and I have an elderly, sick population, that for every hour of face-to-face time, I have another hour, at least, of time that I spend that’s unreimbursed. So, if I’m there for 13 hours, I’m getting paid for about 6 of the hours I’m spending.and
The RVU system is ...designed for specialty care and single problems. There is nothing in the RVU system that allows you to take into account the fact that you’ve just seen somebody with congestive heart failure, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, coronary disease, renal insufficiency, and diabetes.Why Are Payments Low for Face-to-Face Visits?
However, none of the commentaries addressed how we got to this pass, or, to continue the analogy above, none dissected the next layer. At best, they seemed to imply that this came about due to the forces of nature or an act of God. For example, in the round table discussion, Dr Lee said,
And I want to go to the payment system next. But do you think — I mean, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is it in the water and in the culture, in the educational values? And then the payment system may just reinforce that? Or is it the other way around, the payment system’s where it begins and that’s why it’s in the water?To which Prof Barabara Starfield could only reply,
Unfortunately, it’s the chicken and the egg cycle. It doesn’t start in any one place.The Role of the RUC
Actually, one can find the next layer of explanations in one place. The current bizarrely distorted manner in which physicians are paid was the act of people, a few people operating largely in the shadows.
The US Medicare system determines what it pays physicians using the Resource Based Relative Value System (RBRVS). This system determines the pay for every kind of medical encounter according to a complex formula that is supposed to account for physicians' time and effort, physicians' practice expense, and the cost of malpractice insurance. The components of physicians' effort assessed are, in turn, technical skill and physical effort; the required mental effort and judgment; and stress due to the potential risk to the patient.
To keep the system, which was started in 1990, current, requires addition of new kinds of encounters, which means encounters involving new kinds of procedures, and updating of the estimates of various components, including physicians' time and effort. To do so, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) relies almost exclusively on the advice of the RBRVS Update Committee (RUC). The RUC is a private committee of the AMA, touted as an "expert panel" that takes advantage of the organization's First Amendment rights to petition the government. Membership on the RUC is allotted to represent specialty societies, so that the vast majority of the members represent specialties that do procedures and focus on expensive, high-technology tests and treatments. However, the identities of RUC members are secret, as are the proceedings of the group.
This opaque and unaccountable process has resulted in increases outstripping inflation in fees paid for procedures, while fees paid for "cognitive"medicine, i.e., for primary care, and for services that involve diagnosis, management of acute and chronic disease, counseling, coordination of care, etc, but not procedures, have lagged inflation. The effects of the RUC have been amplified by the unexplained tendency of commercial managed care and health insurance to track the RBRVS system when making their own payments to physicians.
For further details about the RUC, see these posts on Health Care Renewal (here, here, here, and here) and important articles by Bodenheimer et al,(8) and Goodson.(9)
The Unanswered Questions
Understanding this layer of the process raises some major questions, whose answers could help dissect the next layers.
- How did the government come to fix the payments physicians receive? Government price-fixing has not been popular in the US, yet this has caused no outcry.
- Why is the process by which they are fixed allowed to be so opaque and unaccountable? Why are there no public hearings on the updates, and why is there no input from practicing physicians or organizations other than the RUC?
- How did the RUC become de facto in charge of this process?
- Why does the AMA keep the membership on the RUC secret, and give no input into the RUC process to its general membership?
- Why is the RUC membership so dominated by procedural specialists? Why were primary care physicians, who made up at least a sizable minority of physicians when the update process was started, not represented according to their numbers?
- Why has there been so little discussion of the RUC and its responsibility for an extremely expensive health care system dominated by high-technology, expensive, risky and invasive procedures?
However, failing to understand, or even address the causes of the collapse of primary care will make it all the more difficult to find a way to revive it.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." attributed to George Santayana
1. Lee TH. The future of primary care: the need for reinvention. N Engl J Med 2008; 359: 2085-2086. Link here.
2. Treadway K. The future of primary care: sustaining relationships. N Engl J Med 2008; 359: 2086, 2088. Link here.
3. Bodenheimer T. The future of primary care: transforming practice. N Engl J Med 2008; 359: 2086, 2089. Link here.
4. Goroll AH. The future of primary care: reforming physician payment. N Engl J Med 2008; 359: 2087, 2090. Link here.
5. Starfield B. The future of primary care: refocusing the system. N Engl J Med 2008; 359: 2087, 2091. Link here.
6. Roland M. The future of primary care: lessons from the U.K. N Engl J Med 2008; 359: 2087, 2092. Link here.
7. Lee TH, Treadway K, Bodenheimer T, Starfield B, Goroll A. The future of primary care: perspective roundtable: redesigning primary care. Link here.
8. Bodenheimer T, Berenson RA, Rudolf P. The primary care-specialty income gap: why it matters. Ann Intern Med 2007; 146: 301-306. Link here.
9. Goodson JD. Unintended consequences of Resource-Based Relative Value Scale reimbursement. JAMA 2007; 298(19):2308-2310. Link here.