Posts Tagged ‘Medical school debt’

Why Aren’t Physicians Paid For Talking To Their Patients?

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

One possible reason that more physicians do not choose family practice as their specialty could be the fact that an essential part of the job is spent talking with patients – an activity that pays less than does performing procedures.   According to a recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, just two percent of medical students plan a career in general internal medicine, pediatrics or ob/gyn.

Writing on the KevinMD.com website, Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam says that “Family doctors spend more time talking to patients than performing procedures, but these doctors don’t get paid much to chat.  According to Dr. Sameer Badlani, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, when physicians are paid on a fee-for-service basis, specialists have the opportunity to make four to five times as much as a family physician.  Given the increasing debt of medical students, it is no surprise that the overwhelming majority choose to specialize.  In order to increase the supply of primary-care providers and meet the anticipated demand, family physicians need to be reimbursed more for their services.  Congress is looking into legislation that includes provisions for loan forgiveness and increased Medicare/Medicaid payments to primary-care providers.  Additionally, there have been talks of expanding the National Health Service Corps, program that utilizes scholarships and loan repayment to recruit primary care professionals to work in underserved areas.”

Primary-care physicians spend more time talking to patients and helping them avoid health crises to cope with chronic and incurable diseases than they spend performing tests and procedures. These doctors ask relevant questions, about health and life circumstances, and listen carefully to their patients.  These are physicians who know their patients and the circumstances and beliefs that can make health problems worse or hamper effective treatment.  The problem is that reimbursements are dictated by Medicare and other insurers.  As a result, physicians are not compensated well for taking the time to talk to patients.  They are primarily paid for procedures – such as blood tests and surgery — and for the number of patients they see.  Most spend long hours doing paperwork and negotiating treatment options with insurers.  The payments they receive have not increased along with increases in the costs of running a modern medical practice.  To earn a reasonable income of $150,000 a year, many primary-care doctors squeeze more and more patients into the workday.  “If you have only six to eight minutes per patient, which is the average under managed care, you’re forced to concentrate on the acute problem and ignore all the rest,” said Dr. Byron M. Thomashow, medical director of the Center for Chest Diseases at New York-Presbyterian Columbia Medical Center.  In a study of more than 3,000 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 50 to 60 percent had one or more other illnesses, and 20 percent had more than 11 other conditions that required medical attention.  “There just isn’t the time to address them all,” Thomashow said.

Dr. Alan J. Stein, an infectious disease specialist in private practice in Brooklyn who treats many patients with HIV, described his practice as “heavily cognitive.  I spend a lot of time talking to patients — listening to them, examining them, interpreting tests and figuring out what’s wrong,” he said.  “I don’t do procedures in the office.  Over the last 10 or 15 years, the income of procedure-based physicians like cardiologists has increased significantly, whereas for those in primary care it has remained the same.”

Despite this, many physicians are reluctant to talk to their patients via e-mail.  Suzanne Kreuziger, a Milwaukee registered nurse, said.  “It makes sense to me to have the words laid out, to be able to re-read, to go back to it at a convenient time,  If I were able to ask my physician questions this way, it would make my own health care much easier.”  Her experience is shared by the majority of Americans: They want the convenience of e-mail for non-urgent medical issues, but fewer than 33 percent of doctors use e-mail to communicate with patients, according to surveys.

“People are able to file their taxes online, buy and sell household goods, and manage their financial accounts,” said Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.  “The health care industry seems to be lagging behind other industries.”  Physicians have good reasons for avoiding e-mail exchanges with their patients.  Some are concerned that it will increase their workload.  Others worry about hackers compromising patient privacy.

The Doctor Can’t See You Now

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

As Baby Boomers celebrate their 65th birthdays at the rate of one every eight seconds, the nation’s physician shortage is growing. “This is not a surprise, of course, but I hope that the oft-repeated statistic will force our nation and our government to face the harsh reality of America’s current physician shortage, our growing underserved populations, and the dismal issue of access for those newly insured after 2014 under provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” said Cecil B. Wilson, M.D., and president of the American Medical Association (AMA).

According to Wilson, the AMA anticipates that the nation will be short by at least 125,000 physicians by 2025.  This year, 22 states and 17 medical specialty organizations are reporting dwindling numbers of practitioners.  Many physicians have so many patients that they have to limit the number of Medicare enrollees they can see because reimbursement rates are not high enough to make a profit.  “For decades, we have watched the physician population move into cities and high-population areas, leaving vast areas of this country woefully underserved,” Dr. Wilson said.  “There still is a primary-care shortage — at least partially because pay differentials for primary-care physicians make it even more difficult to repay medical school debts, which average $155,000.  We see an even larger shortage in the Hispanic, black and other minority communities — partly because of high medical school costs but also because there are few role models for those kids.  And then there is 2014, the year of shrinking access.  That year, when the full provisions of the health reform law kick in, we will see 32 million more patients — people who up to now have been uninsured and often without a physician.”

Complicating the situation is the fact that the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that as many as 33 percent of physicians practicing today will retire over the next 10 years.

The outlook for primary-care physicians is especially grim, according to the Association of American Colleges (AAMC). The AAMC estimates that the nation will need an estimated 45,000 primary-care physicians and 46,000 surgeons and medical specialists once the new healthcare law is fully implemented.  “It’s certainly the worst (shortage) that we’ll have seen in the last 30 years,” said AAMC chief advocacy officer Atul Grover.  “For the first time since the 1930s, our number (of physicians) per capita will start to drop in the next couple of years.  That’s fewer doctors per person, but at the same time, since people are aging and have more chronic illnesses, each person is going to need more healthcare.  That’s a pretty bad situation.”

At present, the United States has 709,700 physicians (in all specialties) with a demand for 723,400 – that’s a shortfall of 13,700 doctors.  By comparison, in 2020, there will be 759,800 physicians (in all specialties) with a need for 851,300 physicians; essentially that represents 91,500 too few doctors.  Once healthcare reform kicks in, 32 million more Americans will have access to medical insurance and 36 million to Medicare.  “As more people get insured, they are going to seek out the care they probably should have been getting all along but haven’t been able to necessarily access.  That’s why those numbers look worse in the next 10 years than we previously had estimated,” Grover said.

Peter J. Weiss, M.D., respectfully disagrees.  In fact, he thinks that the physician shortage is all in the AMA’s Dr. Wilson’s head. “It’s simple, when the doctor supply goes up — the amount of care, and the profits, rise too,” according to Weiss.  “I’m not blaming physicians for this problem, the causes of inappropriate care are complex, but if we just got rid of unnecessary care, would we have a ‘physician shortage?’  Lastly, historically doctors have acted aggressively to protect their turf - both as a profession and within specialties.  How much routine healthcare could be rendered by nurse practitioners, nurses, pharmacists and other more numerous and less costly providers?  Studies suggest that a huge fraction of care doesn’t need to be rendered by a doctor, but what prevents this?  You know the answer — the physician lobby.”