Underfunded, undervalued

This is one of my favorite posts from The Physician Executive, which is especially relevant today as we enter the conversation of reforming payment from our current fee-for-service model to a pay-for-value system in which primary care may finally get the recognition it needs to actually serve its role within the health system.


Funny that people complain about how hard it is to get a good doctor. Sometimes it is important to ask why things are as they are, rather than complain about why they are not better.

I remember a conversation with an internist a couple of years back, who was complaining about how her family physician was so useless…it takes forever for the office to get back to her, appointments are a bear to get, refills take forever and it’s like getting teeth pulled to get him to call her back.

If a primary care doc is running all day trying to get patients through, then I assume he’s busy. That’s good thing. I’ve never waited for reservations at a bad restaurant. A good rule of thumb is that the better doctors’ offices are more crowded.

I know some physicians who have also had the business sense to build incredible systems that can get 30 patients or more in and out daily and still do a good job at it. Not everyone has the administrative skills to do that, even if they are excellent doctors. If the doctor doesn’t spend enough time to listen, the question must turn to what they’re paid for.

Generally, I view phone calls as a waste of time, because they frequently represent an inappropriate service to deliver by phone. Some advice can be safely dispensed at a distance, but nothing is certain without a proper examination. Oh, and that’s what usually what physicians are paid for. They are not paid to dispense advice, provide basic health education, prescribe medication without an assessment, complete forms for patients who haven’t been seen in two years and coordinate referrals for patients who bypassed them entirely and went straight to the specialist. They are paid by the visit, where an examination frequently takes place.

Our physicians at a facility for low-income individuals are allocated fully 20% of their time to do unremunerated administrative functions, only some of which ethically seems appropriate. We stretch the rules in recognition of our patients’ socioeconomic constraints and only because we receive sufficient grant income to support the loss. In private practice… fuggedaboudit. The only reason to do it, is to preserve goodwill, which doesn’t really pay the bills. (This only applies to traditional fee-for-service environments. More about capitation some other time, because that’s a whole different ball of wax.)

Why do physicians with very busy offices have to be so busy? I mean, are they just greedy, churning people like so many little factory widgets? I suspect, while there are some bad apples in the barrel, the majority are skating trying to cover their overhead, payroll, malpractice and hopefully come close to the national average of $150,000 in income. Remember the big bucks are usually reserved for cardiologists, neurosurgeons and other proceduralists, without which no health system would have credibility (source: healthcareerexplorer.com/salaries/neurosurgeon/). What’s the use of preventive services if there is no available curative services should prevention fail?

My friend, the internist completed her rant by saying there was no value to primary care since her family doctor couldn’t provide the service she required.

I wondered out loud if that was the way the world always worked, “Underfund the service you need so that it can’t do the job and then complain that it has not value.”