As a physician who is involved in educating medical students, I am often asked for career advice. Medical students are by nature smart and ask very good questions. "Will I be able to pay of my student loans if I choose primary care?" "Will I have a balanced lifestyle if I decide to go into primary care?"
I try to be both encouraging and realistic. However, far too often I have found myself telling students that the future of medicine, primary care in particular is not clear.
That is no longer true.
The future of health care, and particularly primary care, is now very clear.
Several recent events along with trends that have been in place for the last few years have clarified the future of health care over the next few years. The passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the re-election of President Obama, and the fiscal cliff/sequester have all set into motion changes to our health care system that are likely irreversible and clarify the future of health care. Essentially, there are two paths:
1. Health Care in Large Integrated Systems. Health care costs are skyrocketing. The major fixes to the problem that are accepted on both sides of the aisle are an end to fee for service, bundled payments, and incentives for improving quality at lower costs. Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are one model being tested. However, even if the ACO turns out to be HMO 2.0, and ultimately fails; health care will be delivered in large integrated systems. This trend is already occurring with hospitals, academic medical centers and other health care systems gobbling up (through incorporation or outright purchase) smaller private practices. Because payment will be linked to performance, and performance must be measured and reported; the only way physicians will be able to make money is to not only have a large, robust electronic medical records, but also a staff that can help collect, process and report the important data. Even large private practices don't have the economies of scale to make this happen. Thus, private practice as we know it will cease to exist. This trend is already happening. According to a report by Accenture, over the past decade, the number of independent U.S. physicians has dropped dramatically, from 57% in 2000 to 39% in 2012.
The move to large, integrated is not necessarily a bad thing. Integrated systems allow for quality improvement. Large integrated systems like Mayo, Kaiser, and the VA have some of the best outcomes for health care in our country, usually at significantly lower costs. For physicians, being a salaried employee also has its benefits which include a guaranteed paycheck, reasonable hours, good benefits and no worries about running a practice. The current generation of medical students tends to value work life balance over the potential opportunities seen in private practice.
The down side of large integrated systems is less personalized attention. Rather than seeing your doctor when you are sick, a patient will likely wind up seeing a member of the doctor's care team. Other modalities such as group appointments might be employed.
2. Health Care Outside the System. Some doctors (likely the ones currently in practice) will refuse to join these large integrated groups. Some patients may decide that access to their own personal physician has some value. These patients are tired of waiting forever to get an appointment or a call back from their doctor, and want to see their doctor when they are sick, not a team member. They are even willing to pay beyond what their insurance premiums cover. These patients and providers will go outside the system. Growth of retainer (often called concierge) practices, cash-only practice, or direct primary care models demonstrate that going outside the system is already happening. This will likely be limited to primary care, as one might be able to pay cash for a doctor's appointment, but not a colonoscopy or cardiac catheterization.
Health care delivery is already occurring in large integrated systems as well as outside the system. The aforementioned changes will cause these trends to continue, squeezing out the current physicians who are still in an insurance-based private practice. These changes are certain. What is unclear is the proportion of health care that will be delivered in either model. Will large integrated systems become so effective, that only the very wealthy will deem it worthwhile to get their care outside the system? Or, will large integrated systems become so impersonal and inconvenient that only those with modest incomes will be forced to get their care in these systems? The truth is likely somewhere in between, i.e. 70/30, 50/50 or 30/70.
Regardless, medical students and residents who are trying to determine a career path should now have a clearer vision of the future health care. Patients who are currently receiving their care by a private practice physician who accepts their insurance should also realize that their current situation will likely not exist in the next few years.
Matthew Mintz, MD, is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. He is board certified in internal medicine and has been practicing for more than a decade. He is also an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients. This post originally appeared at Dr. Mintz' Blog. Conflict-of-interest disclosures are available here.