|Prevalence of Multimorbidity with Age (left) and Sex (Right) from Reference 2 per Creative Commons Attribution License.|
I noticed a Twitter feed about a blog piece on the complexity of multiple illnesses and the need for primary care (1). If the post would have stopped there it would be impossible to disagree with. Unfortunately in the usual manner of the blogosphere - for every group elevated another needs to pay the price. In this case, the natural target would be the specialists.
The basic argument is that as people get older they end up with more chronic diseases. That should not be surprising to anyone - see the graphic above and click on it to enlarge. People who accumulate more of these chronic illnesses are the most expensive people to care for in the health care system. Also no surprise, but somewhat of an overstatement. In the USA, it is quite easy to be sailing along disease free and suddenly develop an illness that places you in the top tier of treatment costs. Cancer is a clear example. One of my colleagues told me that the total cost of treatment for breast cancer in one of his relatives was over $1 million dollars. That explains the main motivation for health insurance in the USA, any serious illness can lead to bankruptcy without insurance.
The argument continues that the predominate model of care is that physicians diagnose, treat, and cure illness in episodes of care rather than maintaining people with chronic illnesses. The author concludes that physician specializing in organs or parts of organs are not equipped to deal with the problem. He refers to remorseless specialization and subspecialization as being the problem. He concludes that doctors and patients seem to be going in opposite directions because of this.
That is not what I am seeing. In the USA, one of the main metrics followed in surgical specialties these days is the volume and outcomes of surgeries. Several references point out that surgical volumes and good outcomes are directly correlated. For that reason I found a neurosurgeon who was doing two transphenoidal pituitary adenoma resections per day for years rather than one who had done a total of 9 lifetime when my wife needed resection of a growth hormone secreting adenoma from her pituitary gland. It has been 9 years since the resection and no recurrence of the tumor or endocrine markers. She has not seen the surgeon again in that time but is followed by a primary care physician and an endocrinologist.
The beauty of the American health system if there is any is that you can see a broad array of specialists in any moderate population center. The author was astonished to find that the British Journal of Ophthalmology has a different editor for every layer of the eye. I think that it is equally astonishing that in most American cities you can wake up with symptoms of a retinal detachment and be seen by an eye specialist within hours. If it looks like you have a true acute retinal detachment - you will be referred to a retinal or vitreous specialist and have definitive treatment the same day or the next. The laser surgical technique is far superior to what was being done 20 years ago and can be accomplished in an office in as little as 20 minutes. That surgery prevents blindness and the need for riskier surgery. Within a few decades, ophthalmology has evolved to a very effective and efficient specialty that covers a broad range of eye diseases with relatively few physicians. The advantage of specialists in this case is clear cut and directly addresses patients needs. In fact, the problems that ophthalmologists treat are barely addressed in medical schools. The problem is not that the specialists don't know primary care. The problem is that it is impossible for primary care physicians to recognize and diagnose eye conditions and treat them.
With regard to the knowledge in each specialty, a late friend of mine who happened to be an ophthalmologist put it this way: "Each specialty expands to cover roughly equal amounts of information." At the time of his statement - books were the standard and he pointed out that each specialty had 2 - 3 volume sets of several thousand pages. I haven't seen an information age comparisons - but I think that the concept is a good approximation.
That is not to say that specialists are "better" than primary care physicians. If anything. primary care physicians and specialists count on the fact that those primary care physicians can manage all of the patients health problems except for the one being addressed by the specialist. Specialists count on primary care physicians for preoperative physical exams, referrals, and ongoing care after they have completed the consultation. The problem for some is that it sets up specialists and subspecialists as the superstars of medicine. I am speculating about the problem because I certainly don't see it that way. There is no doubt that some of these specialists are very highly compensated and I won't argue that is right or wrong. Personal observation tells me that they work as hard as anyone and really don't have glamorous lifestyles. Being on call to all of the emergency departments in an area for rare problems is not an easy job. They are there to solve very specific problems, manage one particular illness, or advise the primary care physician about how they would do it and turn the care back over to them.
Even with the inefficiencies of the American health care system - I think there is evidence of a reasonable distribution. The neurosurgeon I referred to sees a catchment area of the entire Midwest. Anyone with a pituitary tumor has access to his expertise. The retinal specialists can be found generally in any area where there is a city of 50,000 people. Since retinal tears/detachments, various retinopathies, and macular degeneration are widespread and in many cases age-related these clinics have a much broader representation and provide good access to large segments of the population.
Over the years that I have been in practice there have been many primary care initiatives. The first initiative was actually threatening to put specialists out of business. That turned out just to be a managed care organization (MCO) tactic. The second wave was forcing MCO primary care physicians to authorize all approvals for specialty care - the so-called primary care gatekeeper approach. I can't imagine how much time that wasted. After managed care organizations realized that they could hire specialists and monopolize them - they also realized that they could make money by "managing" them. That was not 100% effective because now specialists realized they finally had some leverage against managers and could take their business off campus and manage it more effectively themselves. I have seen many variations of pro-primary care and anti-specialist rhetoric over the years.
The problem is that the money never follows the rhetoric. Instead of just paying lip service to primary care why not actually pay them for managing multiple morbidities in an aging population? Why not recognize their expertise? There is no health care company that I am aware of that comes close. MCOs are trying every way possible to reimburse primary care at rates so low - they barely cover the overhead. Government payers are doing the exact same thing. The government programs like Medicare are so bad that many primary care MDs are disenrolling and engaging in a cash only practice.
On the academic side, where are the primary care centers of excellence? Where are the mission statements about managing multimorbidities and being the best possible specialists to do that? Primary care specialists need to own and promote their expertise, especially how they interface with specialists.
It turns out that there is plenty of room for both primary and specialty care in modern high tech medicine. Specialization should be remorseless and managing multimorbities is as specialized as laser surgery on a retina. Once again it appears that the real problems of health care systems are being projected on physicians when they have developed critical treatments that were not around even 20 years ago.
The idea that we should travel back to that point in time - is totally unacceptable to me and the tens of millions of other patients who have benefited from these developments.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
1: Richard Smith. Doctors and patients heading in opposite directions. BMJ Opinion. BMJ Feb 1, 2018. Link.
2: Violan C, Foguet-Boreu Q, Flores-Mateo G, Salisbury C, Blom J, Freitag M,Glynn L, Muth C, Valderas JM. Prevalence, determinants and patterns of multimorbidity in primary care: a systematic review of observational studies. PLoS One. 2014 Jul 21;9(7): e102149. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102149. eCollection 2014. Review. PubMed PMID: 25048354; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4105594.