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Thursday, June 2, 2011

More primary doctors, fewer ER visits

Erin Kelly

Staff Writer

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But what are primary care doctors worth? According to a new study, communities with a higher concentration of primary care doctors see fewer emergency room visits from seniors than communities with fewer primary care doctors. That sounds like a pound of cure to us!

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently released a study that highlighted just how important primary doctors are for the health of our seniors and our communities at large.

The New York Times notes that,

In the areas with the highest concentrations of primary care doctors working full time in outpatient clinical settings, people 65 and older had death rates 5 percent lower than in areas with fewer primary care doctors. They were almost 10 percent less likely to be hospitalized in these areas for conditions that can be treated outside a hospital.

The results are obvious: When older Americans have access to preventive services—like asthma medicine or diabetes screenings—they’re more likely to nip health problems in the bud. When patients don’t see primary care physicians and don’t catch problems early on, their condition often deteriorates and they end up in the emergency room.

This is particularly important for minority communities, which suffer from higher rates of preventable and manageable chronic diseases as well as more health complications and worse outcomes. And, on top of that, these communities are more likely to live in medically underserved areas. Coincidence? Not likely.

So how can we get more primary care doctors in communities around the country? We’re glad you asked.

For far too many years, America’s primary care system has been neglected. The Affordable Care Act, however, contains numerous provisions to help improve primary care.

According to a new Commonwealth Fund study, there are two provisions in the new health care law that change the way that primary care physicians are paid. While at first that may not seem like something that will affect you, consider this:

The goal of these financial incentives is to stabilize and expand the existing primary care workforce: with greater access to primary care providers, patients should have better health outcomes, disparities in outcomes and access to care should be lessened, and overall health care spending should decline.

The Commonwealth Fund study also reported that half of patient visits in 2008 were for primary care, but only 35 percent of the physician workforce was primary care providers. Furthermore, the number of medical students choosing to go into primary care is dropping significantly every year. To deal with this discrepancy, the Affordable Care Act contains support for physicians going into primary care through both financial incentives and training programs that aim to expand the diversity of providers and encourage providers to work in underserved communities.

The bottom line is this: The Affordable Care Act has got your back. Primary care doctors help catch and control chronic conditions and result in fewer emergency room visits. And the Affordable Care Act provides incentives for America’s medical students to choose primary care. Investing in primary care is a win for patients and doctors alike.