The Retired Investor: Primary Care Changing as Doctors Disappear
They are called general practitioners or primary-care doctors. Overworked, suffocating under mountains of paperwork, they see more than 30 patients a day in one of the most underpaid areas of the medical field.
An estimated one-third of all physicians in the U.S. are primary-care doctors, according to the Robert Graham Center, which studies the primary-care market. They include medicine physicians, general internists, and pediatricians. Depending on the definition, other researchers, like the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, say that number is far lower, around 12 percent. That compares with a range of 23-45 percent of primary care doctors in Europe.
My doctor, whose office is a stone-throw away from my house, fits the profile of most doctors in her field. She is meticulous, saved me from serious health issues several times, and knows my family intimately. I trust her implicitly and don't know what I would do without her.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, her doors were always open, and she did it alone since finding anyone willing to work for her was impossible. With no help, she spent her evenings entering patient data into the nation's cumbersome electronic health record systems, scheduling appointments, and checking on patients.
Today, a smaller and smaller percentage of medical students are even considering the field. Salaries are a big reason why other medical and surgical specialties are promising far more income. Retirement is further depleting the nation's stock of GPs. At the same time, the demand for primary care is growing, thanks to record enrollment in Affordable Care Act programs.
This results in longer and longer waiting times between visits to see your primary-care doctor. The average wait time is now about 21 days and growing. If, God forbid, your doctor retires, most people are faced with a "not taking new patients" electronic message from most physicians.
In response, over the last five years, large primary care and urgent care groups have sprung up across the nation. They are flourishing. Patients can usually walk in to see a doctor (although not necessarily the same doctor) on each visit. Many times, they will not even see a doctor. They will instead see a nurse practitioner or a physician's assistant.
Retail clinics like CVS Minute Clinics, offer in-person and virtual care seven days a week. Changes in Medicare and state laws have loosened the requirements for physicians and billing. This has boosted the growth in these areas, making them one of the fastest-growing segments of the medical arena.
The trend has grown so fast that roughly 46 percent of all primary-care physicians are currently working in practices they do not own. And two-thirds of those doctors do not work for another doctor, but a different entity altogether — Corporate America.
Given the present state of the primary-care field, why would the country's largest health-care insurers, drug store chains, and other billion-dollar corporations want to get involved in this business? Names like CVS, Amazon, Aetna, and Amazon are all buying up primary-care centers, doctor groups, and even the practices of individual doctors.
The simple answer — to create one-stop shopping for all your health-care needs. Corporations want access to the nation's huge number of consumers who need all sorts of health care and medical insurance. Primary-care doctors hold the pulse of millions and millions of patients. These patients will continue to generate a steady flow of business and profits to hospital systems, health insurers, and pharmacies.
In addition, Medicare, the federal health insurance program, is gradually being privatized. As it stands now, more than 30 million beneficiaries have policies with private insurers under the Medicare Advantage program. That is worth $400 billion a year for insurers and is growing every year.
Corporations entering the field say they are bringing coordinated health care to patients. Health insurers and others want to institute "value-based care" where the insurer and doctor are paid a flat fee for individual patient care. They argue that fixed payments will act as an incentive to maintain the health of the patient and provide access to early care, which in turn will reduce hospital stays and visits to expensive specialists.
Critics, however, worry that the economies of scale invading patient care will destroy the personal doctor-patient relationship. It may also end up in situations where corporate owners begin to dictate and limit services from the patient's first visit to extended hospital stays.
Given the growing scarcity of primary-care physicians, many millennial patients, especially those who are younger and generally healthy, are unfazed by the changes in health care. A video call or a no-wait visit at their local drug store or big-box store beats waiting for weeks to see a doctor. As for me, I am both lucky and grateful for my primary-care doctor.