Should We All Die at 75?: Addressing the “Emanuel Principe” in Obamacare

Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the authors of the Affordable Care Act spoke publicly this week about his own desire to “die at 75” in a article published in the Atlantic.  In his piece, he argues that as he ages, he wishes to stop all preventative medical measures and “let nature take its course” as he approaches the age of 75.  This includes screenings such as colonoscopy as well as taking flu shots for the prevention of communicable illness.  While currently in excellent health, Mr Emanuel believes that while death is a loss–”living too long is also a loss.” He argues that the American obsession with living longer results in a larger number of elderly, disabled citizens.  I take significant issue with this position and fear that this is simply the beginning of a new phase in the ACA debate–the rationing of care. From the outset, many of us in healthcare and scholars of healthcare policy have seen Obamacare as a way to promote the rationing healthcare (particularly for the elderly).  While the administration has vehemently denied these claims throughout the legislative and implementation phases of the new healthcare law, it is particularly revealing that one of the principal architects of the law firmly believes that we should not pay attention to life expectancy statistics beyond the age of 75.  Medical advances have made it increasingly possible for seniors to lead healthy, productive exciting lives well into their 80s.  Now, I certainly am not arguing for providing futile care in the setting of terminal illness but–Why then should government (instead of doctors) now have the right to determine how healthcare resources are utilized and who gets what?  Is it all about age?  Do we value the young more than the more “seasoned” citizens? The US healthcare system, while certainly imperfect, offers some of the greatest technological advances in the world and the most significant thing that has always set US healthcare apart form others has been CHOICE.  With Obamacare in place, we now have less choice in our healthcare and very little improvement in access.  This latest article by Mr Emmanuel is no surprise–he has been clear about his belief in allocating health care dollars away from activities which may extend lifespans for Americans.  While, Mr Emmanuel certainly has the RIGHT to refuse care for himself at a certain age neither he (NOR OBAMA or any GOVERNMENT agent) should be able to determine an “acceptable” life span for each of us. Quality of life and health status can be very subjective and care must remain individualized rather than mandated (or withheld) based on actuarial tables or government rationing of resources. Medicine is all about innovation and the development of new technologies.  Through technology we are able to provide longer, more productive lives for our patients.  Our patients are able to retire from a life of work and enjoy spouses, family and friends–well into their 80s and 90s WITH a quality of life.  In fact one of my favorite “golf buddies” is 80 years old and going strong–He can still shoot in the 80s from time to time and never misses a game. In MEDICINE one size does not fit all.  OBAMACARE wants to force a ONE SIZE FITS ALL healthcare system on all of us and as a physician I find this to be unacceptable.  Just as we must cater therapy to individual patients—when (and how) you die must also be catered to each individual patients needs, desires and beliefs. Chronological age such as 75 may be different for different people AND we must respect individual needs.  Medicine is a clearly a science but in many cases the practice of medicine –particularly when making decisions about end of life issues–makes it more of an ART.  The government has no place in dictating ART.  Government should help to preserve and curate art–not regulate and mandate the way in which medical care is delivered to individual patients based on age. Ultimately, left to its own devices, I believe that the ACA will create rationing of care for Americans and we will have two classes of people–those that are wealthy and can afford private care and can pay cash for it–these can make their own healthcare decisions and decide when enough is enough.  The others–most of us–will be lumped into the disaster that IS obamacare and will have little or no choice in how our healthcare is delivered.  Waiting lists for advanced procedures and denials of advanced care for the elderly will be the standard–Just as Mr Emanuel envisioned it when he crafted the law just a few short years ago.

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Engaging Patients with an Apple and Health Apps: Watches Are No Longer Just for Telling Time

Today patients are increasingly connected.  The fastest growing demographic on Twitter is actually those that are between 45 and 65 years old.  Our patients are becoming better informed and are flocking to the internet and to social media to discuss and learn more about disease.  Prevention of disease is becoming more of a priority in our healthcare system as we begin to adjust to the mandates provided for in the Affordable Care Act and physicians are now expecting patients to take a more active role in their healthcare.  In the last 5 years, the concept of the electronic patient has emerged and is becoming more and more prevalent among mainstream patient populations.  These patients often come to office visits armed with information and data collected on the internet and are very technologically savvy.  They embrace new devices and are eager to track health indicators such as blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate through easy to use phone applications.

This week, Apple intends to announce a new smartwatch and a group of associated health applications.  These innovations will further allow the electronic patient to become more of a mainstream phenomenon.  However, in order to be effective, physicians and other healthcare providers must embrace these technologies and begin to better understand their utility in all patient populations.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the announcement of the new smartwatch is expected to introduce no less than ten new sensors for monitoring health indicators.  Apple has created a data repository that will allow health related information to be stored (with the user’s permission) and directed to healthcare providers if so desired.  This assimilation and collection of massive amounts of health indicator data may be a significant game changer in the fight against chronic disease.  With many patients, compliance with medication or lifestyle modification plans is a challenge.  Many diseases such as hypertension do not produce immediate ill health effects–rather they accumulate over time.  However, if we can clearly demonstrate to patients the positive responses to interventions on a daily (or even hourly basis) they may be much more likely to comply with prescribed treatment plans.  Glancing at a smartwatch and noting a response to exercise or to a completed dose of medication can be a powerful motivational tool.

What if all of the data is collected simply by wearing a watch?

If we make collection and organization of information simple and user friendly, then important information can be transmitted to a physician who can review the data prior to the next face to face office encounter.  Real time feedback can then be provided to the patient and this may ultimately result in increased engagement and may actually spur change in habits or behaviors that are detrimental to a particular patient’s health.  Moreover, according to the WSJ, the new Apple operating system will include a Health icon that will allow for the development of a dashboard with many health indicators that are easily accessible in one place–lab results, heart rate, blood pressure, weight–even calories consumed and burned in a given time period.  The engaged patient can see what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong and can track improvements in habits rather quickly.  Having the data all in one place will likely increase compliance and improve overall health of the adopters of this technology.

What about security of sensitive personal healthcare data?

As with most new advances in medicine, there are significant concerns about data breaches and compliance with the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations.  According to a story in the New York Times, Apple is working with application developers as well as the federal government in order to ensure that any stored or tracked healthcare data will remain secure.  Partnerships with application designers, insurance companies, healthcare systems and physicians will be critical to the success of the new Apple smartwatch.  As these new technologies are rolled out and continue to develop, efforts to secure data will continue to evolve.

The development of new and exciting healthcare technologies and applications will continue to bolster the development and of the growing number of electronic patients.  Ultimately, the Apple smartwatch and other soon to be developed health indicator monitors, trackers and data repositories will only serve to further engage both patients and doctors and, in my opinion, significantly improve our ability to intervene EARLY and prevent the terrible consequences of chronic disease.

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Setting the record straight: New stool DNA test for Colorectal Cancer Screening (A guest Blog by @DrDeborahFisher)

 

A bit about today’s Blog Post…..

Dr Deborah Fisher is a brilliant Gastroenterologist at Duke University Medical Center.  She is also a fantastic wife and mother.  A Twitter fanatic, Dr Fisher has taken to Social Media to promote issues in Gastroenterology.  Today, she writes about a very controversial subject in GI–Does a New stool DNA test Replace Colonoscopy and is the Media Creating Confusion in the Market? 

Setting the record straight: New stool DNA test for Colorectal Cancer Screening (A guest Blog by @DrDeborahFisher) 

An occupational hazard of being married to a rising media star is that when I expressed my concern and exasperation at the misinformation being circulated about a newly FDA-approved colorectal cancer screening test, his response was “write a guest blog for my blog page”. Another occupational hazard is having the local NBC-affiliate news truck parked in front of our house at 9:30 on a random summer evening. But that is for another blog.

For full disclosure, I am a gastroenterologist and much of my research and clinical focus is colorectal cancer screening. Some of my previous comments on the new stool DNA test, Cologuard, have already been published in the New York Times as well as in a previous issue of @MedPageToday. However, I have recently noticed a number of misleading articles in various newspapers across the country and wanted to address these, likely common, misconceptions about the new test.

First, I want to openly acknowledge the positives about Cologuard. The study in the New England Journal of Medicine examining its ability to find a colon or rectal cancer as a one-time test (compared to colonoscopy as the gold standard) was large, well-designed and well-executed. It showed that as a one-time test Cologuard was 92% sensitive for cancer. It also showed that the false positive rate was about 13%.

The problem has arisen in how the study results are being spun in the media. Here are a couple emerging myths to debunk:

  • Cologuard is for patients who absolutely positively want to avoid colonoscopy.

                                                     FALSE

While colonoscopy is the most common test used in the US to screen for colorectal cancer , it is not the only test. It is not even the “best” test. It is the most accurate test for finding cancers and polyps but that is not the same as the “best” because there are clear downsides including cost, risk of complications, access. A screening strategy of using a non-invasive test first can greatly decrease the need for colonoscopy but does not eliminate colonoscopy because Positive Screening Tests Should Be Followed By a COLONOSCOPY. Therefore, a positive stool DNA test needs to be evaluated with colonoscopy or the point and potential value of screening is lost.

The fecal immunochemical test, aka FIT, is also a non-invasive colorectal cancer screening test. It has been around for decades, and in its current form is a widely available test that is included in all the US colorectal cancer screening guidelines

In fact, I will argue that it is a better test for your patient who is not completely against screening but would prefer to avoid colonoscopy if possible because 1) its false positive rate is 5% vs. 13% for Cologuard. Therefore it carries a lower risk of leading to an unnecessary colonoscopy 2) it is currently covered by all insurance carriers

  • Cologuard will increase colorectal cancer screening rates in the US population

                                                       FALSE

Or perhaps a more accurate response might be “We have no idea” since it is a new test and the only people who have used it were in a research study.

On the other hand, we have compelling data that FIT increases screening rates compared to the older guaiac-based fecal tests and among patients who were previously unscreened.

 

  • Cologuard is the best non-invasive test for colorectal cancer screening

                                                       FALSE

And a bit of a trick question because we really do not have a Best Test at this point. Nonetheless, Exact Science is clearly going after the screening market leftover after colonoscopy takes its lion’s share. In addition to my general case for no “best” test, I would argue that Cologuard has not accumulated enough data to knock FIT off its best non-invasive test perch.

Yes, Cologuard had a higher rate of diagnosing cancer in one-time testing compared to a single FIT product in a single study, but

1) Screening is not a one-time test. FIT is meant to be repeated annually (or biennially in most screening programs outside the US). We have no idea if after 2 or 3 rounds of FIT the higher sensitivity (detecting cancer among individuals with cancer) of Cologuard will remain.

2) The interval of annual FIT testing has a wealth of data support vs. no data whatsoever supporting ANY testing interval for stool DNA tests (currently CMS is considering a 3 year interval

3) In a healthy population, it is important to consider harms and the higher rate of false positives leading to colonoscopy could translate into an increased rate of adverse events.

4) FIT is $25 vs. $600 for Cologuard

 

Now, some might say, “hey colonoscopy is the most expensive, risky option out there”. To which I say touché. Perhaps unfortunately, no headlines are claiming any test is better than colonoscopy. That might be another blog. Poor Dr Campbell is creating a social media monster.

Deborah Fisher, MD, MHS

Associate Professor of Medicine

Duke University Department of Medicine

Division of Gastroenterology

@DrDeborahFisher

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Turf Battles and Collateral Damage: Are We Really Putting the Patient First?

Last week, Medpage Today reporter Sarah Wickline Wallan tackled a very controversial issue in medical practice.  In her piece, Ms Wallan explores the ongoing battle between Dermatologists and AHPs (Allied Health Professionals) over the performance of dermatologic procedures.  As independent NPs and PAs begin to bill for more and more procedures (thus potentially talking revenue away from board certified Dermatologists) specialists are beginning to argue that the AHPs are practicing beyond their scope of practice. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, nearly 5 million dermatological procedures were performed by NPs and PAs last year–this has Dermatologists seeking practice limits–ostensibly to protect “bread and butter” revenue streams from biopsies, skin tag removals and other common office based interventions.

In response to this controversy and the article, I was asked to provide commentary for Med Page Today’s Friday Feedback.  Each week, the editors at MPT discuss a controversial topic and have physicians from all over the country share their feelings on the issue in order to provide readers with a mulit-specialty perspective.  This “Friday Feedback” feature is typically released on the web near the end of the day on Fridays and often spurs a great deal of social media activity and discussion.  Based on reaction to Ms Wallan’s article our topic this past Friday was “Specialty Turf Battles”.  Each respondent was asked to provide commentary on the growing angst between Dermatologists and Allied Health Professionals.    As I began to reflect on the issue itself and its potential impacts on all aspects of medicine, I felt that a complete blog would be a more complete forum to discuss my thoughts.

First of all I want to say that AHPs are essential to providing care in the era of the Affordable Care Act.  NPs and PAs are able to help meet the needs of underserved areas and do a remarkable job complementing the care of the physicians with which they work.  With the rapidly expanded pool of newly insured, as well as the increase in administrative tasks (electronic documentation) assigned to physicians, AHPs must help fill in the gaps and ensure that all patients have access to care.  In my practice we are fortunate to have many well qualified AHPs that assist us in the care of our patients both in the hospital as well as in the office.

We must remember, however, that physicians and AHPs have very different training.  Each professional posses a unique set of skills and each skill set can complement the others.  Many of us in specialty areas spend nearly a decade in post MD training programs and learn how to care for patients through rigorous round the clock shifts during our Residency and Fellowship years.  In addition, we spend countless hours performing specialized procedures over this time and are closely supervised by senior staff.  Most AHPs, in contrast, do not spend time in lengthy residencies and often have limited exposure to specialized procedures.  Turf battles have existed for decades and are certainly not limited to Dermatology–nor or they limited to MDs vs AHPs.  In cardiology in the late 1990s, for instance, we struggled with turf battles with Radiology over the performance of Peripheral Vascular Interventions.  In many areas, these battles resulted in limited availability of specialized staff to patients and a lack of integrated care.  Ultimately, the patients were the ones who suffered.

Fortunately, in the UNC Healthcare system where I work (as well as others across the country) we have taken a very different approach.  After observing inefficiencies and redundancy in the system, several years ago our leadership (under the direction of Dr Cam Patterson) decided to make a change.  The UNC Heart and Vascular Center was created–Vascular surgeons, Cardiologists, Interventional Radiologists, and Cardiothoracic surgeons–all working under one cooperative umbrella.  Patients are now discussed and treated with a multidisciplinary approach–Electrophysiologists and Cardiothoracic surgeons perform hybrid Atrial Fibrillation ablation procedures, Vascular surgeons and Interventional Cardiologists discuss the best way to approach a patient with carotid disease–all working together to produce the BEST outcome for each individual patient.  We have seen patient satisfaction scores improve and we have noted that access to multiple specialty consultations has become much easier to achieve in a timely fashion.  Most importantly, communication among different specialties has significantly improved.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the ACA and decreasing reimbursement I suspect that turf battles will continue.  Financial pressures have become overwhelming for many practices and the days of the Private Practice are limited–more and more groups will continue to “integrate” with large hospital systems in the coming years.  Specialists such as Dermatologists and others will continue to (rightly so) protect procedures that provide a revenue stream in order to remain financially viable.  However, I believe that our time will be better spent by working together to improve efficiency of care, quality of care and integration of care.  NPs and PAs are going to be a critical component to health care delivery as we continue to adapt to the new (and ever changing) ACA mandates.  We must put patients FIRST–turf battles and squabbles amongst healthcare providers will only limit our ability to provide outstanding, efficient care.  Let’s put the most qualified person in the procedure room–and make sure that ultimately patients get exactly what they need.

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The Dangerous Stranger Lurking in the Dark: Using the AliveCor Device to Identify Asymptomatic Atrial Fibrillation

Surgery has many well defined risks–we perform procedures when the benefits far outweigh the risks.  As healthcare providers, it is our job to carefully discuss the risks and benefits of any medical procedure with our patients prior to the planned procedure and make sure that they understand what we are doing, why we are doing it and what our ultimate goals include.  We often discuss bleeding, infection, and other common post operative risks and then other risks that are specific to the particular procedure being performed.  Now there may be a new perioperative clinical marker–atrial fibrillation–that can identify patients at risk for other complications such as stroke, long after discharge from the hospital.  Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm problem in the entire world and is associated with stroke in patients who are at risk.

This past week the Journal of the American Medical Association published a new study examining both the incidence of atrial fibrillation after ANY surgery as well as the conferred risk of stroke.  The study involved over 1 million patients and the results were quite alarming–nearly 28K patients had peri-operative atrial fibrillation and of those, almost 14K patients experienced strokes that occurred after discharge.  Even more disturbing was the fact that the rate of atrial fibrillation was even higher in non cardiac surgery patients (as compared to those undergoing cardiac surgery).  Many surgical patients may be discharged without knowing that they have atrial fibrillation or that they are at risk.  Some may present with cryptogenic strokes and suffer life changing devastation.  The data is very clear about the prevention of stroke in atrial fibrillation.  Based on a risk score (known as the CHADS2-vasc) we are able to quickly calculate and assess risk for stroke (based on several common predisposing factors) and appropriately choose an anticoagulant for each patient.  It is also clear that anticoagulation in high risk populations reduce stroke rates significantly.

There is no doubt that atrial fibrillation results in significant morbidity and mortality in the US today.  According to data from Circulation published in 2013, one in every 19 deaths is due to atrial fibrillation related stroke and nearly $37 billion dollars is spent on patient care due to this disease.   Even  more disturbing is the fact that many patients with atrial fibrillation are totally asymptomatic and may not even know they have the arrhythmia at all—many patients’ first presentation with atrial fibrillation is sadly a presentation with a devastating stroke.  The recent article in JAMA further emphasizes the negative impact that silent atrial fibrillation can have on patients.  As clinicians, we remain vigilant for the presence of atrial fibrillation and often we are able to identify and screen those at high risk–however, many patients are missed and preventative therapy with anticoagulation is never prescribed.

What is the Answer?  How can we better screen asymptomatic patients for atrial fibrillation in a cost effective, broad based way?

The Alive Cor iPhone EKG application and device is the first of its kind.  It is an FDA approved device that can record a single lead electrocardiogram directly from your fingertips, display the tracing on the iPhone screen and transmit the tracing to the cloud for review.  The device is now available direct to consumers for purchase and no longer requires a physician prescription.  In May, a clinical trial was published that demonstrated that the Alive Cor device could be used to easily screen large groups of consumers for atrial fibrillation in a cost effective way.  In the study, which was published in May in Thrombosis and Haemostasis, investigators screened 1000 asymptomatic pharmacy customers for atrial fibrillation using the Alive Cor device and found that 1.5% of them actually had atrial fibrillation upon screening.  The cost effectiveness per stroke saved in the US was estimated to be a cost savings of nearly 20%.

Given the high prevalence of both symptomatic and asymptomatic atrial fibrillation worldwide, it is essential that healthcare providers strive to do a better job screening for this sometimes silent disease.  The identification of patients at risk for stroke from atrial fibrillation (and subsequent anticoagulation) is the best way to reduce both the cost and devastating morbidity and mortality associated with the disease.  With technology such as the AliveCor device readily available to both patients and clinicians it is essential that we begin to utilize this device for massive, cost effective screening efforts.  As healthcare reform shifts focus on prevention of costly disease,   we must continue to focus on improving screening and care for those at highest risk.

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What Color is My Pill Doc? Using Technology to Improve Medication Compliance

It is clear that patient compliance with prescribed medications is critical to success in the treatment of any chronic disease process.  In addition, patient engagement and co-management of their disease has been proven to improve outcomes.  This past month a new study from the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that any changes in the appearance of a medication may result in a decrease in compliance–when a pill looks differently patients often simply stop taking them as prescribed.  In this study, a change in pill color was associated with a 34% increase in medication discontinuation and a change in pill shape was associated with a 66% increase in medication discontinuation.  In cardiovascular patients in particular, the sudden discontinuation of medications can result in increased hospitalizations for chest pain, congestive heart failure and other more serious acute cardiovascular events. For other disease processes such as diabetes, medication non compliance can be devastating and life threatening as well.

The Challenges of Managing Poly-pharmacy

In general, today’s patients are taking more medications for a multitude of ailments and even for the most astute patients keeping track of doses and regimens can be a challenge.  Add in changes in color and appearance of chronic medications and the task can often be overwhelming for elderly patients with cognitive decline.  According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2008, nearly 81% of adults aged 57-85 took at least one pill and 29% took 5 or more drugs.  In addition, nearly 50% took concomitant over the counter drugs and/or supplements as well.  Side effects, drug-drug interactions and other concerns have led many physicians to attempt to streamline medication use and avoid the dreaded “poly-pharmacy” patient.  However, this serious public health problem is further complicated by patient non-compliance issues.  Many regulators argue for more FDA intervention as well as requiring generic drug makers to conform to non generic shapes and colors when manufacturing generic substitutes.  However, I believe that this data argues for a more comprehensive, patient centered approach to increasing medication compliance.

Leveraging Technology in Seniors

Technology today is ubiquitous in nearly all age groups. According to a Pew Research poll, most seniors utilize the internet and a large majority of these users interact via tablets, computer or other mobile devices.  As we age, we tend to live with more chronic illnesses and seem to require more daily medications.  Given the fact that now seniors are actively engaged on the internet, it makes sense for medical professionals to use these powerful tools to assist patients with management of their disease.  Many EMR systems already incorporate “patient portals” which allow for direct patient access to certain parts of their medical record such as test results, appointments, etc.  In addition, there are websites such as Pill Identifier that allow patients and physicians to search a large database of drug images in order to more accurately identify a medication–this is particularly useful when a patient approaches a visit in an Emergency Room or has a consultation with a new physician.

Based on the newly released study in Annals, it is clear that pill identification (and consistency of appearance) is critical in maintaining patient compliance with chronic medical regimens. Regulatory agencies are slow to act–forcing private generic drug makers to keep the size, shape and color of the generic consistent with the brand name is not realistic.  I believe that we can use tablet technology to quickly address this issue.  What if we create an application (downloadable to mobile phone, tablet and laptop) that is able to quickly identify all shapes colors and sizes of a particular drug? Currently there is a pill identifier app on the market but it requires the user to enter color shape and size in order to identify the correct medication–are there better apps yet to come? Ease of use and accuracy will be key components to any new medical applications aimed at older adults.

What Are Potential Solutions?  What Can WE Do Now?

As healthcare providers, we must do a better job encouraging the use of technology to help identify drugs and promote compliance.  The Annals study is a stark reminder that even though we may prescribe the best, most evidence based regimen to treat disease, it takes very little for our patients to become sidetracked–something as simple as a change in shape or color may result in the discontinuation of an effective, potentially life-saving medical treatment.  As physicians, we sometimes forget the “simple things” such as the importance of consistency and routine for our patients.  The culture of healthcare in the US no longer allows for the extended office visit and frequent follow up in order to ensure that patients are compliant with their treatment plans–we are asked to see more patients, in less time and the documentation requirements have become paramount in practice.  We must look for alternative ways to assist our patients with managing their disease while at home–I believe technology is the answer.  We must provide education and resources for our patients and assist them in the identification and use of medical applications.  With technology, we may be able to extend our reach–and support for our patients–well beyond the walls of our office.

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More (or less) Hope and Change (for the worse) In Healthcare: Are Doctor Shortages Really All Due To Training Bottlenecks?

There is no doubt that Affordable Care Act has changed the landscape of medicine in the US.  Now, private practice is becoming a thing of the past. Financial pressures, increasing regulatory requirements, electronic medical records and outrageously complex coding systems are forcing long time private physicians to enter into agreements with academic centers and large hospital systems in order to survive.  As a result, medicine today is more about increasing patient volumes, completing reams of paperwork and administrative duties than it is about interacting with patients and providing superior care.  The American Academy of Family Practice (AAFP) estimates that there will be a significant shortage of primary care physicians in the next several years unless we increase the number of primary care trainees by more than 25% over the same time period.  In fact, the AAFP suggests that the primary care workforce must increase to 260K physicians by the year 2025–which translates to an additional 52K primary care doctors.

Given the need for more physicians and the pending shortage (particularly in primary care), many analysts have suggested that the reason for the shortage is a lack of training slots in primary care.  The ACA will add an additional 32 million patients to the pool of insured and primary care doctors will be at a premium.  In the New York Times this week, the editorial board collectively penned an article discussing their thoughts concerning the doctor shortage.  The NYT editorial board suggests that the shortage is all about an imbalance between Residency training slots and medical school graduates and can be easily corrected by federal funding of a larger number of training positions.  However, I think that the issue is much more complex and the solution is far from simple.

Primary care is an incredibly challenging specialty and requires a broad knowledge of much of medicine.  Reimbursements for primary care work continue to lag and physicians are now spending more time with administrative duties than they are with patients.   I do not believe that the so called post graduate training “bottleneck” will come into play.  I would suggest that many primary care training slots will go unfilled over the next 5-10 years even without increasing the numbers of available positions.  Increasing training slots for primary care specialties may do nothing to alleviate shortages if there are no students who wish to train.  While medical school enrollments have increased over the last decade, much of this increased enrollment may be due to a lack of jobs available to recent college graduates.  Moreover, as the ACA continues to evolve, physicians are now realizing lower compensation rates, increased work hours, more administrative duties and LESS time spent caring for patients.  Many physicians are forced to double the number of patients seen in a clinic day–resulting in less than 10mins per patient–in order to meet overhead and practice expenses.  In a separate article in the New York Times, author and cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar discusses the increased patient loads and subsequent higher rates of diagnostic testing that is required in order to make sure that nothing is missed–ultimately increasing the cost of care.

For most of those who have entered medicine, the attraction to the profession is all about the doctor-patient interaction and the time spent caring for others.  I would argue that the primary care shortage (and likely specialist shortage) will worsen in the future.  Many bright minds will likely forego medicine in order to pursue other less government-regulated careers.  In addition, many qualified primary care physicians will opt out of the ACA system and enter into the rapidly growing concierge care practice model.  The answer to the physician shortage may be more political than not–politicians must realize that laws and mandates only work if you have citizens willing to devote their time, energy and talents to the practice of medicine.  Going forward, more consideration must be given to physician quality of life and autonomy must be maintained.  In order to make healthcare reform sustainable, those in power must work with those of us “in the trenches” and create policies that are in the best interest of the patient, physician and the nation as a whole.  Cutting costs must be approached from multiple angles–not simply reducing the size of the physician paycheck.

Medicine remains a noble profession.  Those of us that do continue to practice medicine are privileged to serve others and provide outstanding care.  In order to continue to advance, we must continue to attract bright young minds who are willing to put patients and their needs above their own–at all costs.  I think that there is still HOPE to save medicine in the US.  It is my HOPE that our government will soon realize that in order to continue to propagate a workforce of competent, caring physicians we must provide time for physicians to do what they do best–bond with patients and treat disease.  (as opposed to typing into a computer screen and filling out endless reams of electronic paperwork).  It is my HOPE that those physicians in training  that will follow in my generation’s footsteps will realize the satisfaction that comes from impacting the health and lives of patients over time.  It is my HOPE that the ART of medicine can be saved before it is too late….

 

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