America’s health care crisis is like a Russian Matryoshka doll — open it, and you find its slightly smaller twin. Just below the cost and coverage concerns there is an equally grave and in some ways kindred problem: Primary care is on the critical list. As Congress noted this year, the number of U.S. medical-school grads going into family medicine fell more than 50 percent from 1997 to 2005, and only 24 percent of 2006’s third-year internal-medicine residents intended to pursue general internal medicine — down from 54 percent just eight years earlier.
Clearly, today’s new physicians have figured out that being someone’s regular doctor means too little money, too little time, too little professional satisfaction, and too many 800 numbers to dial. But only primary care has a chance to bend the famous cost curve — and fulfill managed care’s promise at last — by orienting health services toward keeping us well instead of waiting to apply costly high-tech band-aids to the sick.
What’s the answer? A growing number of experts hope primary care can be rescued by something called the patient-centered medical home (PCMH). Definitions vary, but the PCMH is widely described as a reorganized primary care practice in which the doctor gets paid — more generously than today — not for running patients in and out for standard office visits, but for truly coordinating their care in a cost-effective way. In a sense, it’s the old dream of better payment for cognitive services in a new guise.
The medical home idea actually goes back to 1967, when the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advanced the term to describe a central location for the medical records of a special-needs child. Revived and expanded, the concept is widely used today in both public and private sectors to describe what a primary care practice could be.
American College of Physicians (ACP) Vice President Michael S. Barr, MD, who has focused on the PCMH dream for more than three years, defines it as “patient-centered longitudinal care, with the services that are recommended by evidence-based guidelines, appropriate to the patient according to his or her preferences in conversations with a physician in a trusted healing relationship.”
Making that a broad-based reality will be a tall order. “It requires a complete re-engineering of a practice,” says Joe Fortuna, MD, former medical director of Delphi, the parts supplier that General Motors spun off in 1998, who serves on the executive committee of the Michigan Primary Care Coalition and as a Michigan State University consultant on physician process improvement. “If it’s done right, it really is turning the whole thing upside down, making it patient-centered instead of physician-centered.”
But the PCMH is already more than a gleam in the eye. It has its own not-for-profit umbrella organization, the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative (www.pcpcc.net) — a coalition of supportive employers, health plans, consumer groups, labor unions, hospitals, physician groups, and other stakeholders. It’s being tried in several pilot programs across the country. A demonstration was called for in the Tax Relief and Health Reform Act of 2006, and the PCMH also appears in the Preserving Patient Access to Primary Care Act, introduced by Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania.
“We chose the name medical home when we put forward our policy papers because we wanted to link the notion to that idea from the 1960s,” says Barr, referring with his “we” to the four primary care specialty organizations that have pushed the PCMH notion forward in the 21st century: the AAP, the ACP, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). In a Pediatrics article in 2002, the AAP expanded the definition of its old term to describe something that would offer “accessible, continuous, comprehensive, family-centered, coordinated, compassionate, and culturally effective care.” Then the AAFP chimed in with a 2004 report called The Future of Family Medicine, and the ACP followed in 2006 with The Advanced Medical Home.
At a professional meeting in 2006, the ACP’s Barr met Paul Grundy, MD, MPH, and Martin Sepulveda, MD, two IBM medical executives in charge of buying health care for overseas employees. Recalls Barr: “They said, ‘We really like your paper and those of the pediatricians and the family physicians, and that’s the kind of care we can buy in other countries. If you guys can get your ideas together in one place, we’ll bring other employers to the table and start talking about how we can make this happen.’” That was the impetus for the February 2007 release of another document called Joint Principles of the Patient-Centered Medical Home by the four societies together, representing nearly one third of a million U.S. doctors.
“The conversation with the employers was ongoing,” says Barr. “And at one point we said, ‘You’re not going to be able to get this unless you pay differently — and, in fact, pay more for some of these things, because practices will have to be transformed.’ And they said, ‘OK, but we’re not going to pay for something unless we can define it.’”
In response, the four physician societies sat down with the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) and together they created a three-tiered set of credentials that practices might earn to win recognition as PCMHs, building on an existing initiative called Physician Practice Connections, known by the pay-for-performance program “Bridges to Excellence” as the Physician OfficeLink.
So how would a PCMH be different from a traditional primary-care practice? The answer is a basket of related innovations, which the NCQA represents in a point system for the three levels of PCMH accreditation it offers. Only the highest level requires that Holy Grail of medical modernization, the electronic medical record. Most of what the PCMH model calls for isn’t rocket science, but as Don Bradley, MD, chief medical officer and senior vice president for health care at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina, puts it, “The inertia in getting it done is pretty overwhelming to a doc who is trying to see 30 patients a day.” In six key areas, the goal is to improve significantly on traditional practices.
Down the road, as the PCMH model advances, it calls for the smooth integration of the electronic medical record and increasingly rigorous preventive care. And with all these changes, income and professional satisfaction in primary care would be expected to rise, reversing today’s flood out of the profession. Doctors across the country may say, as Liss says the ones in his Southeast Pennsylvania pilot program are already saying, “I feel better about the job I’m doing. Fewer things are slipping through the cracks.”
No one disputes what we’ve heard for years — that failures of adherence, communication and follow-through, duplications caused by a lack of information-sharing, and needless ER visits and hospital readmissions waste more than enough resources to pay for a somewhat bigger primary care piggy bank. Barr: “If I’m a big industrial employer and 5 percent of my health care expenditures goes to primary care, I can pay primary-care doctors 20 percent more and still have that share be only 6 percent. With better coordination, I’m sure I can find more than that 1 percent difference across the spectrum of my health care spending.”
Indeed, boosters of the PCMH concept say it can be part of the long-sought solution to a broken health care system. But skeptics wonder whether it is like trying to open a checking account with the gold in your teeth.
So comes the awkward question: Who pays? Medicare’s PCMH pilot programs, says a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokesman, are designed to have a neutral effect on the budget by winning back upfront expenses from the money that’s saved. The cost to a primary care practice of establishing a PCMH program has been estimated at $100,000 or more, and few practices have that much on hand for voluntary self-improvement. You know who that leaves.
“There is a perception that physicians distrust health plans,” the Deloitte report observes delicately. “To that end, it would probably be necessary for the sponsoring health plan to make the upfront investment in the medical home and provide a bonus structure tied to cost savings and population-based outcomes.”
In today’s pilot programs, it is indeed health plans that are ponying up in the hope of finding future savings. “In the short term, insurers — us included — are making a bit of a gamble and leap of faith that with these investments we’ll see better care and the avoidance of unnecessary services,” says Aetna’s Liss. “And frankly, unless we’re able to demonstrate some benefit — ‘we’ meaning all of the stakeholders, not just health plans or carriers — the PCMH is not going to gain the traction it needs for durable change.”
Experts agree that the PCMH revolution is far from a done deal. To foster its development and deal with the changes it brings, health plans will have to step lively in several ways. Besides shelling out money for pilot programs at this early stage, they will “have to work with employers to change the design of benefits,” says Sue Willette, senior vice president and chief growth officer of MediMedia USA, who consults with employers. (MANAGED CARE is a MediMedia publication.) “And you might end up seeing some of what we know today as disease management delivered in a similar fashion, but with the primary care physician at the center, directing all the activity.”
Broad adoption of the PCMH might also cause an image problem for health plans, as the generally clear Deloitte report warns in one of its more gobbledygook-prone moments: “The concept could be unsettling to a community,” it declares, “if it is sponsored by a single health plan that is deemed to be ‘disintermediating’ between traditional patient-practice dynamics” — in other words, if a plan looks to be acting like Big Brother and getting in the way.
Finally, there is the ticklish issue of specialists doing the math: If primary care doctors earn more and overall costs are controlled, doesn’t that mean less for specialists? “I have a couple of colleagues who very specifically worry about that,” says Bradley.
Even the most avid boosters of the PCMH will tell you it is not the single silver bullet that will save U.S. health care. But it has the potential to remake primary care and change the environment in which health plans operate, making treatment more comprehensive, more coordinated, and more rational — if it can surmount the serious obstacles in the way of its full implementation.
“We’re seeing the idea have some legs this time around,” says Willette. “But there are a lot of skeptics out there.”
“I wouldn’t think of the medical home primarily as a cost saving measure, because it’s really principally about quality, and…sometimes quality can cost more”
—Jim Bridges, MD, BCBS MI