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Will the Doctor See You Now? The Health System’s Changing Landscape

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Lucia Agajanian, a 25-year-old freelance film producer in Chicago, doesn’t have a specific primary care doctor, preferring the convenience of visiting a local clinic for flu shots or going online for video visits. “You say what you need, and there’s a 15-minute wait time,” she said, explaining how her appointments usually work. “I really liked that.”

But Olga Lucia Torres, a 52-year-old who teaches narrative medicine classes at Columbia University in New York, misses her longtime primary care doctor, who kept tabs for two decades on her conditions, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and made sure she was up to date on vaccines and screening tests. Two years ago, Torres received a letter informing her that he was changing to a “boutique practice” and would charge a retainer fee of $10,000 for her to stay on as a patient.

“I felt really sad and abandoned,” Torres said. “This was my PCP. I was like, ‘Dude, I thought we were in this together!’”

The two women reflect an ongoing reality: The primary care landscape is changing in ways that could shape patients’ access and quality of care now and for decades to come. A solid and enduring relationship with a primary care doctor — who knows a patient’s history and can monitor new problems — has long been regarded as the bedrock of a quality health care system. But investment in primary care in the U.S. lags that of other high-income countries, and America has a smaller share of primary care physicians than most of its European counterparts.

An estimated one-third of all physicians in the U.S. are primary care doctors — who include family medicine physicians, general internists, and pediatricians — according to the Robert Graham Center, a research and analysis organization that studies primary care. Other researchers say the numbers are lower, with the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker reporting only 12% of U.S. doctors are generalists, compared with 23% in Germany and as many as 45% in the Netherlands.

That means it’s often hard to find a doctor and make an appointment that’s not weeks or months away.

“This is a problem that has been simmering and now beginning to erupt in some communities at a boil. It’s hard to find that front door of the health system,” said Ann Greiner, president and CEO of the Primary Care Collaborative, a nonprofit membership organization.

Today, a smaller percentage of physicians are entering the field than are practicing, suggesting that shortages will worsen over time.

Interest has waned partly because, in the U.S., primary care yields lower salaries than other medical and surgical specialties.

Some doctors now in practice also say they are burned out, facing cumbersome electronic health record systems and limits on appointment times, making it harder to get to know a patient and establish a relationship.

Others are retiring or selling their practices. Hospitals, insurers like Aetna-CVS Health, and other corporate entities like Amazon are on a buying spree, snapping up primary care practices, furthering a move away from the “Marcus Welby, M.D.”-style neighborhood doctor. About 48% of primary care physicians currently work in practices they do not own. Two-thirds of those doctors don’t work for other physicians but are employed by private equity investors or other corporate entities, according to data in the “Primary Care Chartbook,” which is collected and published by the Graham Center.

Patients who seek care at these offices may not be seen by the same doctor at every visit. Indeed, they may not be seen by a doctor at all but by a paraprofessional — a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant, for instance — who works under the doctor’s license. That trend has been accelerated by new state laws — as well as changes in Medicare policy — that loosen the requirements for physician supervisors and billing. And these jobs are expected to be among the decade’s fastest-growing in the health sector.

Overall, demand for primary care is up, spurred partly by record enrollment in Affordable Care Act plans. All those new patients, combined with the low supply of doctors, are contributing to a years-long downward trend in the number of people reporting they have a usual source of care, be it an individual doctor or a specific clinic or practice.

Researchers say that raises questions, including whether people can’t find a primary care doctor, can’t afford one, or simply no longer want an established relationship.

“Is it poor access or problems with the supply of providers? Does it reflect a societal disconnection, a go-it-alone phenomenon?” asked Christopher Koller, president of the Milbank Memorial Fund, a foundation whose nonpartisan analyses focus on state health policy.

For patients, frustrating wait times are one result. A recent survey by a physician staffing firm found it now takes an average of 21 days just to get in to see a doctor of family medicine, defined as a subgroup of primary care, which includes general internists and pediatricians. Those physicians are many patients’ first stop for health care. That runs counter to the trend in other countries, where patients complain of months- or years-long waits for elective procedures like hip replacements but generally experience short waits for primary care visits.

Another complication: All these factors are adding urgency to ongoing concerns about attracting new primary care physicians to the specialty.

When she was in medical school, Natalie A. Cameron said, she specifically chose primary care because she enjoyed forming relationships with patients and because “I’m specifically interested in prevention and women’s health, and you do a lot of that in primary care.” The 33-year-old is currently an instructor of medicine at Northwestern University, where she also sees patients at a primary care practice.

Still, she understands why many of her colleagues chose something else. For some, it’s the pay differential. For others, it’s because of primary care’s reputation for involving “a lot of care and paperwork and coordinating a lot of issues that may not just be medical,” Cameron said.

The million-dollar question, then, is how much does having a usual source of care influence medical outcomes and cost? And for which kinds of patients is having a close relationship with a doctor important? While studies show that many young people value the convenience of visiting urgent care — especially when it takes so long to see a primary care doctor — will their long-term health suffer because of that strategy?

Many patients — particularly the young and generally healthy ones — shrug at the new normal, embracing alternatives that require less waiting. These options are particularly attractive to millennials, who tell focus groups that the convenience of a one-off video call or visit to a big-box store clinic trumps a long-standing relationship with a doctor, especially if they have to wait days, weeks, or longer for a traditional appointment.

“The doctor I have is a family friend, but definitely I would take access and ease over a relationship,” said Matt Degn, 24, who says it can take two to three months to book a routine appointment in Salt Lake City, where he lives.

Patients are increasingly turning to what are dubbed “retail clinics,” such as CVS’ Minute Clinics, which tout “in-person and virtual care 7 days a week.” CVS Health’s more than 1,000 clinics inside stores across the U.S. treated more than 5 million people last year, Creagh Milford, a physician and the company’s senior vice president of retail health, said in a written statement. He cited a recent study by a data products firm showing the use of retail clinics has grown 200% over the past five years.

Health policy experts say increased access to alternatives can be good, but forgoing an ongoing relationship to a regular provider is not, especially as people get older and are more likely to develop chronic conditions or other medical problems.

“There’s a lot of data that show communities with a lot of primary care have better health,” said Koller.

People with a regular primary care doctor or practice are more likely to get preventive care, such as cancer screenings or flu shots, studies show, and are less likely to die if they do suffer a heart attack.

Physicians who see patients regularly are better able to spot patterns of seemingly minor concerns that could add up to a serious health issue.

“What happens when you go to four different providers on four platforms for urinary tract infections because, well, they are just UTIs,” posed Yalda Jabbarpour, a family physician practicing in Washington, D.C., and the director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies. “But actually, you have a large kidney stone that’s causing your UTI or have some sort of immune deficiency like diabetes that’s causing frequent UTIs. But no one tested you.”

Most experts agree that figuring out how to coordinate care amid this changing landscape and make it more accessible without undermining quality — even when different doctors, locations, health systems, and electronic health records are involved — will be as complex as the pressures causing long waits and less interest in today’s primary care market.

And experiences sometimes lead patients to change their minds.

There’s something to be said for establishing a relationship, said Agajanian, in Chicago. She’s rethinking her decision to cobble together care, rather than have a specific primary care doctor or clinic, following an injury at work last year that led to shoulder surgery.

“As I’m getting older, even though I’m still young,” she said, “I have all these problems with my body, and it would be nice to have a consistent person who knows all my problems to talk with.”

KFF Health News’ Colleen DeGuzman contributed to this report.

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