The latest Graham Center One-Pager in the February 1 issue of AFP contained good news and bad news for Family Medicine. Examining the entry of medical students into residency programs between 2008 and 2018, Dr. Robert Baillieu and colleagues reported that the total number of graduates who entered Family Medicine through the National Residency Matching Program increased by 64% over the past decade. However, the annual proportion of U.S. allopathic (MD) graduates remained static at around 50%, reflecting the continued migration of most students into higher-paying medical subspecialties.
Two previous AFP Community Blog posts reviewed research demonstrating that students entering family medicine are more likely to make patient-centered, cost-conscious clinical decisions and that primary care physicians who trained in low-cost hospital service areas are more likely to provide high-value care in practice. The late health services researcher Barbara Starfield, MD, MPH once argued that a lack of investment in primary care is a major reason that the U.S. health system spends so much but produces poor outcomes:
The thing that is wrong with our current health care system is that it is not designed to produce the best effectiveness, efficiency and equity in health services because it is too focused on things that are unnecessary and of high cost rather than arranging services so that the most needed services are provided when needed and with high quality. [This] is the case because the country has not put sufficient emphasis during the past 50 years on a good infrastructure of primary care. ... We have done a reasonably good job at making subspecialty care available, but a lot of subspecialty care is not necessary if you have good primary care. So we end up with a very expensive system that does things unnecessarily.
In a recent nationally representative study in JAMA Internal Medicine, Dr. David Levine and colleagues examined associations between receipt of outpatient primary care and care value and patient experience. Using Dr. Starfield's definition of primary care as "first-contact care that is comprehensive, continuous, and coordinated," the authors compared the quality and experience of care in more than 70,000 U.S. adults with and without primary care who participated in the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey from 2012 to 2014. 70% of the primary care clinicians identified by patients were family physicians (19% were general internists). After adjustment for potential sources of confounding, respondents with primary care were more likely to receive high-value preventive care and counseling and to report better patient experiences than those without primary care. However, respondents with primary care were also slightly more likely to receive low-value prostate cancer screening and antibiotics for respiratory infections.
In an accompanying editorial that noted the disparity in primary care investment between the U.S. (7% of total health care spending) and the health systems of other industrialized nations (20%), Dr. Allan Goroll asked: "Does primary care add sufficient value to deserve better funding?" Although this formulation recognizes that the American status quo is a subspecialist-oriented health system, it seems to me that the question ought to be, "Does subspecialist medical care add sufficient value to primary care be worth the added cost?" From this study and previously published evidence, the answer appears to be no.