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“Doctor, it’s taken so long to get this appointment with you.” This is the opening line of so many medical visits these days, and I find myself constantly apologizing to my patients for the delay. Even though both the patients and I know that it’s a systemic issue, it’s still front and center in our personal interaction. They are frustrated that they can’t get a timely appointment, and I’m aggravated because too many medical issues pile up in the interim, making the visits we do have massively overburdened.
The difficulty with access to medical care has been extensively highlighted at the VA hospital system, but is endemic to our entire medical system, even for patients with good insurance plans. Since the Affordable Care Act, some 10 million more Americans now have health insurance. This is an impressive achievement that should be celebrated, but of course insurance is only the first step in improving overall health. Now, these 10 million Americans must find doctors. A survey of 20,000 doctors from the nonprofit Physicians Foundation reports that fewer than a fifth of American doctors are able to take additional patients. More than 80% of doctors are over-extended or at capacity.
What does this mean for American medicine? One possibility is that the Affordable Care Act has placed us on an unsustainable path, something we hear frequently from those who oppose Obamacare. But this only holds water if the prior status quo—allowing a significant swath of America to remain outside the healthcare system—is considered acceptable. Luckily, we are slowly coming around to the ethical conclusion that the rest of the world has already made, that health care is something that all people deserve. Political realities may have forced awkward contortions in our health-care reform, accommodating multitudes of private insurance plans rather than offering a public option—concrete progress has nevertheless been made. So now the health care system must adapt. It can no longer survive on the expediencies of ignoring 15% of our population—it needs to start thinking about caring for all Americans.
A first step is considering how we allocate our existing clinical resources. The Physicians Foundation survey reported that doctors spend 20% of their time doing non-clinical paperwork. If you visualize that statistic carved out from the total number of doctors, it’s equivalent to about 170,000 doctors whose stethoscopes are sitting idle. This is a mind-boggling waste. To not be able to get an appointment with your doctor because she is spending a fifth of each day doing paperwork would sound ludicrous if it weren’t so dangerous. But patients and their serious medical conditions are getting short shrift as their doctors and nurses drown in metastasizing paperwork. Freeing up doctors’ time to see patients—a true measure of efficiency!—could make a real difference in the access problem. Amputating off even half the paperwork would be the equivalent of 85,000 new doctors available for patients.
A second step is to start planning ahead for healthcare that fits the needs of our patients, now that we are getting serious about taking care of all patients. For that, we need to delve a little more deeply into the access issue. Other countries have access issues also, but their long waiting lists relate primarily to specialties and procedures. What is uniquely American about our access problem is that it is particularly difficult to get primary care. Our inability to provide basic medical care for all Americans is what torpedoes the net efficacy of our medical system. Despite our superior technological advancements, we rank dead last in overall health outcomes compared with other developed countries. There is no secret about how to improve this—it’s tending to the basics. Research shows that the more primary care patients receive, the healthier they are and the longer they live. But the American system is not set up for this. Going forward, the only way to have a significant impact on our nation’s health is by improving access to primary care. Expanding training slots in family medicine, internal medicine, geriatrics, gynecology, and pediatrics is a necessary step, because the sheer growth of the American population means that we will need at least 20,000 more primary care doctors, if not more. But alongside increasing the pipeline of primary care doctors, we have to rethink the way we value and reimburse medical care.
It is an embarrassing truth that in the United States access to medical care relates to how lucrative that care is. It’s much faster and easier to get expensive tests and procedures than to take care of your general health. The fee-for-service system has consistently weighted procedure-based services (surgeries, endoscopies, MRIs) as having more “value” than cognitive-based services (treating diabetes, asthma, or heart failure). This absurd and patently profit-driven assessment means that we end up with more procedures and higher bills but poorer health and ultimately less access to basic medical care. Newer payment systems—bundled payments, pay-for-performance, accountable care—have the potential to jigger the balance somewhat. But our fundamental hierarchy remains completely backwards. Until we reverse this and make primary care, well, primary, getting an appointment with your general doctor in the United States will be the Achilles’ heel of medicine. Unless, of course, that heel needs a botox injection.
Danielle Ofri is an internist at Bellevue Hospital, an associate professor of medicine at NYU, and editor of The Bellevue Literary Review. Her most recent book is What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine. In her TEDMED 2014 talk, she makes a powerful against-the-grain case that one of the things medical professionals are most resistant to doing would lead to dramatic improvements in care and undoubtedly save many lives.