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If We Build the Medical Home, Will All Primary Care Docs Come?

by Jaan Sidorov

by Jaan Sidorov of the Disease Management Care Blog

Among its many good qualities, the patient centered medical home (PCMH) has been lauded as the means to primary care. Yet, assuming the PMCH has plenty of merit by itself, what does that have to do with rescuing primary care?

Simple question, but the answer is more complex. Most reasonable observers agree that primary care is hard work and undervalued. The demoralized physicians leaving primary care are not being replaced in sufficient numbers by medical school graduates, leading to shortages in many areas of the country. While the causes for this are myriad, supporters of the PCMH suggest it can reverse medical student disinterest and help the current cohort of primary care physicians to hang in there.

Will it? In this day of slavish devotion to evidence-based health care, just where is the evidence for this contention? There are no surveys of what rank and file community-based primary care physicians actually think about the patient centered medical home. In particular, we don’t know how well it will address the physicians’ lifestyle concerns or their income expectations.

There are plenty of studies on what they believe ails their profession. Physicians are unhappy about the loss of clinical autonomy, the number of hours they work and their inability to obtain services for their patients. Being responsible for any gatekeeping services is also a dissatisfier, as well as being under pressure to see a minimum number of patients per day. For younger physicians, income is a more distant consideration, compared to personal satisfaction and fulfillment outside of work.

And just what is it about the medical home that will fix these problems? Just because there is a medical home doesn’t mean high cost radiology services will not continue to come under preauthorization, that drug formularies will not put continue to put certain medications out of reach, that restrictive physician networks won’t be used or that managed care organizations won’t continue to bluntly prod physicians to achieve HEDIS benchmarks. Keeping patients away from the emergency room or the hospital requires a zealous amount of hustle that goes well beyond the 8-5 business day.

Much of the supplemental payment for the extra services of a medical home are calculated to cover the expense of those extra services such as health information technology, staff that manage care management services and the additional physician time necessary to oversee the primary care site team. It’s only after these costs are met that physicians are expected to be rewarded. We don’t know what their price point is.

The support for the medical home by rank and file primary care physicians may be overestimated. True, there are reports that the PCPCC and TransforMED pilots underway have been enthusiastically received, but this represents a small fraction of the docs out there who may not be representative of the usual mainstream doc. The point is we don’t know how they will react and, without more data, we cannot be sure that if we build the support for the medical home that they will come.

We also need to vigorously look for other solutions to what ails primary care outside of the unproven assumptions surrounding the PCMH.