Critical Debate on the Future of Healthcare

Complex, Chronic Diseases Are Rampant Today

American Medicine Treats Them Poorly

America has the providers, the science, the drugs, the diagnostics, and the devices needed for outstanding patient care. But the delivery of care is dysfunctional at best and far too expensive. Primary care doctors, who are trained and experienced to care of those with chronic illnesses, spend too little time with their patients to have the time necessary for a comprehensive history, too little time to listen, and too little time to think. The result is an excess of referrals to specialists and overuse of diagnostics and pharmaceuticals. Together, these drive up the costs of care.

My friend Susan in the first article of this series was a good example. Presenting to her PCP with a somewhat unusual symptom, she was sent from specialist to specialist without ever learning what was causing her symptom, much less resolve it. It was a true waist of time, money and her emotions when the answer was there if only a doctor spent some time to listen to her.

To further exacerbate the problem, the doctor and patient no longer have a “contract;”. The patient and doctor are bystanders to the decision-makers. Frustration by doctors and patients is high, and physician burnout has become rampant.

 Add to this is a significant change in the common serious diseases – complex, chronic illnesses, mostly preventable, for which American medical care has not established suitable methods of prevention or adequate methods of care. In addition, what should be the role of the primary care physician has been compromised by the insurance industry (both commercial and government-sponsored) that puts the incentives in the wrong places. The result is a sicker population, episodic care, and expenses that are far greater than necessary.

Our current delivery system was designed early in the past century with the expectation that the patient would pay the doctor a reasonable fee for the effort, skill, and time involved.

Insurance developed during the past 70 years initially to pay for unexpected, highly expensive care, such as surgery or hospitalization. But over time, insurance transitioned into what is essentially prepaid medical care and along the way eliminated the financial “contract” between you and your primary care physician (PCP or Nurse Practitioner.) The contract today for both you  and the doctor is with the insurer The patient and doctor are bystanders to the decision-makers.

Worse yet, insurance pays primary care providers a pittance, driving them to “make it up in volume” by seeing too many patients per day, often 24 or more. Of course, this means short visits, perhaps three per hour, which translates into about 10-12 minutes of actual face time with you.

The delivery system was developed to deal with acute medical problems, where it is reasonably effective. For example, consider the pneumonia that a single internist can treat with antibiotics, an appendicitis that can be cured by the surgeon, or the fractured arm that the orthopedist can cast. But our medical care system works poorly for most chronic medical illnesses and costs far too much. Chronic illnesses include diseases like diabetes with complications, cancer, heart failure, chronic lung and kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s.

These chronic illnesses are increasing in frequency at a rapid rate and consume the bulk of health care expenditures. They are largely (although not entirely) preventable.

Author’s Image from Fixing The Primary Care Crisis based on Jones, et al, “The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine” in the New England Journal of Medicine.

A century ago, the most common causes of adult death were infections – pneumonia, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Today these are uncommon and treatable. Now the most frequent causes of death are chronic illnesses – heart, cancer, and stroke, with Alzheimer’s and diabetes just behind. Other than some cancer, most others are not curable.

Most chronic diseases are related to lifestyles and are preventable. A myriad of social, environmental, financial, and personal reasons has led to non-nutritious diets, lack of exercise, chronic stress, inadequate sleep, smoking, and excess alcohol. Obesity is now a true epidemic, with one-third of Americans overweight and one-third obese. The combined result is high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and elevated blood glucose, which, combined with the long-term effects of the above behaviors, leads to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, chronic lung problems, kidney disease, and cancer.

No one pays for prevention, for maintaining health and wellness. Insurance is for disease care. Government does little (except with tobacco) to assist. As a result, as a country, we do not attend to actual healthcare and maintaining wellness, which in turn means greater pressure on the medical care delivery system. We don’t have a health care system, it is a medical care system that focuses on disease, its diagnosis, and treatment. Wellness and prevention are largely ignored. That is unfortunate because most of today’s chronic diseases could be prevented. Attention to prevention is the logical method to maintain and improve health and is much less expensive than treating a disease once it occurs.

When any of these chronic diseases develop, except for some cancers, it usually persists for life. These are complex diseases to manage and are often very expensive to treat – an expense that continues for the rest of the person’s life. Preventing them is equally complex but a lot less expensive.

Although not adequately appreciated, primary care physicians can handle most of today’s chronic illness care. They have the knowledge, experience, and skill level to do so. But this does not happen with short visits. All too frequently, the patient is referred to one or multiple  specialists when the PCP could have dealt with the problem had they had enough time. That extra time would not have cost much, but the referral, of course, means an increase in the costs of care, often substantial.

Some patients with chronic illnesses will need a team of caregivers, but the various specialists and the PCP are not a true team working in a unified manner. For example, consider a patient with lung cancer who may need a surgeon, radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, pulmonologist, pain specialist, palliative care team, nurse practitioner, and many others. Primary care physicians generally do not have the time needed to coordinate the care by the specialists. This is very unfortunate because coordination is absolutely essential to ensure good quality at a reasonable cost. You might think that one of the specialists might take on that role but that rarely occurs. More often the patient starts with a surgeon who refers him on to a radiation oncologist who then refers to a medical oncologist who then may or may not call-in others as needed. 

Any team needs a quarterback, and in general, that person is or should be the primary care physician. The PCP needs to be the orchestrator of the various specialists when needed in these complex patients. This need for a team and a team quarterback for the patient with a chronic illness is much different than the needs of the patient with an acute disease in which one physician can usually suffice. A team quarterback dramatically reduces the total costs of care if only because it means continuity and organization of care, keeping the patient’s welfare upper most in mind.

This shift to a population that has an increasing frequency of chronic illnesses mandates a shift in how medical care is delivered. Unfortunately, our delivery system has not kept up with the need. This is no way to run a railroad.

Join me with the following articles as I address more of the Whys and How’s and What to Do.

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Stephen Schimpff MD
Stephen Schimpff MD
Early career at the National Cancer Institute's Baltimore Cancer Research Center developing new approaches to infection prevention and treatment of leukemia and lymphoma patients. Then the head of infectious diseases and director of the University of Maryland Cancer Center followed by senior leadership positions in the Medical School and Medical System culminating as CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center. Now the author of 7 books on health and wellness, our dysfunctional healthcare delivery system & the crisis in primary care. Lover of nature. Happily married for 58 years.

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