Does Primary Care Need To Be Retooled? @Medici_Manager @HealthLeaders

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, March 14, 2013 http://bit.ly/168fQcc

The president of Partners Healthcare and a Harvard University economist contend that primary care in the U.S. needs to be restructured to improve physician business practices and provide more value for patients.Under this “subgroup management,” primary care physicians would oversee improved coordination of care for greater efficiencies and clinical outcomes.

So say Thomas H. Lee, MD, network president of Partners Healthcare, and Michael E. Porter, PhD, the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at the Harvard Business School, and director of The Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, both in Boston, in a Health Affairsarticle this month. I spoke to both of them about their primary care challenge. (Erika Pabo, MD, MBA, a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, was a co-author.)

“If we’re going to make primary care as effective as we want to, we have to start with a clear overreaching goal and try to restructure primary care,” Porter says. “It starts with value and that’s the true north compass. Primary care isn’t really one thing. It’s a lot of different things for a lot of different patients with very different needs.”

“If we can segment the needs and take patients and group them into fairly straightforward categories, such as healthy adults, or someone with one or two chronic conditions or very disabled people, we can understand the needs of a defined group of patients, and change the nature of primary care,” Porter adds.

The primary care framework isn’t working now, they say. As Lee sees it, too many physicians are “stumbling down a road, not sure where they are trying to go, as opposed to a bunch of people effectively moving down a road.” For doctors, it’s a vital question: their livelihoods are at stake.

“Market share is going to places that can meet patients’ needs and do it more effectively,” Lee says. He warns that physicians who “won’t be able to get their act together to adopt a strategic framework will be less successful and lose market share to organizations that can.”

Under their plan, a physician practice would divide patients into small groups reflective of differences of “core needs and circumstance,” Porter and Lee write. A practice may refer some patients to other providers better equipped to meet particular needs.

As it is now, an absence of a “robust overall strategy” is one of the causes of primary care’s problems, according to Porter and Lee.

“Thinking about primary care as a single service not only undermines value but also creates a trap that makes value improvement difficult, if not impossible. We will never solve the problem by trying to do primary care better,” they write. “Instead, primary care must be redefined, deconstructing the work that goes on within those practices and rethinking how it is performed.”

Examples of the team focus: integrated cancer teams that increasingly include both palliative care specialists and a psychiatrist to measure patient outcomes. Or, patients with end-stage renal disease may be referred to a dialysis team that provides primary as well as nephrology care.

As Porter and Lee envision a new primary care structure, they say care teams and delivery processes can be designed for each patient subgroup, with measurable outcomes. Such data measurement is woefully lacking under current primary care, they say.

The possible changes would touch not only on clinical care, but also go into the day-to-day function of existing primary care practices, which includes scheduling or patient visits. Patients with common chronic diseases can be “preferentially” scheduled to facilitate more efficient visits that may include group educational programs, they write.

Diabetes sessions could include an expansive team of specialists such as endocrinologists, podiatrists, and nephrologists. Especially complex case sessions with patients could involve mental health specialists, palliative care consultants, and social workers.

It’s no surprise, they say, that some of the best work in primary care is now focused on specialty care, especially the complex needs of elderly and disabled patients. “Various organizations have built a whole care model for those people,” Porter says.

He pointed out some examples, including the Commonwealth Care Alliance , which includes multidisciplinary teams and home visits. Others having integrated delivery care, where primary care and specialists work hand-in-hand, include CareMore, Intermountain Healthcare, Cherokee Health System, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

To finance all of these primary care changes, Porter and Lee endorse the bundled payment model for a “total package of services for a defined primary care subgroup during a specific period of time, the approach most aligned with patients.”

While some healthcare organizations are moving in the right direction to improve primary care, much is lacking. Lee was even tough on his own health system. “We’ve got 65,000 employees, and the number of people whose job it is to improve the value of our care for healthy people, which is most people out there? The number is zero,” Lee says of Partners. “It’s not anyone’s job right now. Therefore, no one does it in a systematic way.”

Indeed, there is much discussion about population health, medical homes and Accountable Care Organizations with primary care physicians playing important roles. That’s nice, Porter and Lee say, but those models still fall short of the multidisciplinary, collaborative teams needed to augment primary care.

“We’re saying ‘let’s take it one step further,'” Porter says. “What are the primary care needs of different individuals?”

Porter and Lee acknowledge that their model certainly poses difficulties for small practices, but they insist small physician groups should not be excluded.

“There are a whole bunch of forces challenging the one and two doctor practice going forward,” Lee admits. “I don’t think anyone will look back and say this paper by Mike Porter and Tom Lee put them over the edge. There are ways to get physicians spread out, even in rural settings, to work together. They have to be ready to want to work together and collaborate with colleagues to improve the value of care for patients over time.”

Change must be in the offing for primary care, Lee insists. “I don’t think anyone feels like things are stable and that all (physicians) need to do is just show up for work and work as they currently are working and be OK,” Lee says. “We want to provide this strategic framework to make something happen, as opposed to fretting about it.”


Joe Cantlupe is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media Online.

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