The following opinion piece from athenahealth President and CEO Jonathan Bush previously appeared on HISTalk, in response to a July 28, 2012 New York Times article.
It was hard to read the recent sobering article in The New York Times, “Doctor Shortage Likely to Worsen with Health Law,” without picturing a lot of very smart people throwing their hands up in collective despair. Dr. G. Richard Olds, the dean of the new medical school at the University of California, Riverside, summed up the likely scenario in his part of California quite starkly: “We’ll have a 5,000-physician shortage in 10 years, no matter what anybody does.” Not exactly a rousing call to arms.
What, if anything, is to be done about this crisis in the making? In an article otherwise devoid of solutions, Dr. Olds hinted at an answer when he suggested that “changing how doctors provided care would be more important than minting new doctors.” As the article points out, the proportion of medical students going into primary care has declined over the past 15 years as PCP earnings have diverged from those of specialists. But that’s not the whole picture.
Along with low remuneration, a 2009 study of the work conditions of family and general practitioners identified adverse workflow as a major driver of dissatisfaction, with 53% reporting time pressure during exams and 48% burnt out from the chaotic work pace. The same 15 years that have witnessed PCP decline have seen PCPs take on an ever-rising burden of paperwork, a more complex billing landscape, and a dizzying array of new federal requirements and mandates. Despite these rising challenges and seismic shifts in health care, the organization of the typical medical practice looks much as it did 50 years ago.
The narrow focus of the PCP shortage debate on the need for primary care to expand to meet rising demand misses the more significant point that it needs to be redefined through innovations that improve efficiency and restore the sanctity of the physician-patient experience. Technology can, and should, play a central role in this process. Rather than add work to physicians’ plates and hindering productivity, as many electronic health records (EHR) still do, the EHR should reduce work for physicians and delegate it to other clinical staff. Delegating work and empowering clinicians to practice to the top of their licenses not only reduces costs overall, but frees physicians to be fully present with a patient when their complete attention and training is truly required.
Non-clinical, routine work that bogs down PCPs should be removed from the office entirely. Even in our digital age, vast amounts of paper still clog practices and consume valuable staff time. At athenahealth we know that, on average, providers must process more than 1,000 clinical faxes every month, not to mention the forests of paperwork associated with insurance claims and government programs. This routine work can be offloaded to others in the supply chain who can eliminate it, automate it, or execute it more efficiently at scale.
By finding new efficiencies through technology, delegating care, and moving administrative work out of the practice, primary care can not only become more financially sustainable but more attractive to new entrants. Innovation, not just expansion, is the key to success.