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Solving the Nation’s Primary Care Shortage

employee benefitsvirtual primary carehealthcarecovid-19Telehealth • 4 min read • Nov 23, 2020 12:00:00 AM • Written by: Dr. Nicholas Lorenzo

Widespread Adoption of Telehealth Clears the Path for Virtual Solution

It’s well-reported that the United States faces a large and growing shortage of family and internal medicine doctors, but few understand the severity of the primary care provider crisis. In this post, we take a deep dive into the numbers, detail the ripple effects on Americans’ health status, and offer a new solution for addressing our nation’s healthcare needs: Virtual Primary Care.

Provider Shortage on Track to Get Worse

The demands on the U.S. healthcare system are increasing, a result of the nation’s growing, aging population. At the same time, a physician shortage is making it harder for consumers to access quality care. Consider the following:

  • According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, the nation could be short 121,900 physicians – including a shortfall of up to 55,200 primary care physicians – by 2032.
  • The AMA also reports that fewer medical students are choosing to pursue careers in internal or family medicine. In other words, the shortage is going to get worse.
  • A study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that only 75% of Americans had a primary care provider, down 2% in a little over a decade.
  • The decline translates to nearly nine million Americans who do not have primary care.
  • The JAMA study also noted a marked decline in primary care among younger Americans and those without complex medical issues.

Primary Care is Directly Linked to Better Health, Lower Costs

The decline in providers is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because primary care has long been associated with better health status and lower overall costs.

A wealth of medical studies link access to primary care is associated with positive health outcomes, and new research reported in JAMA shows a direct correlation between the number of primary care doctors and an increase in life expectancy.

In the U.S., only 4-7% of all healthcare dollars are spent on primary care, but a report from Oregon Health Authority determined that every $1 invested in primary care yields $13 in savings in downstream healthcare costs. Meanwhile, the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative links increased primary care spend to fewer emergency department visits, total hospitalizations, and hospitalizations for ambulatory care-sensitive conditions. Given the high costs of emergency and hospital care, this is especially noteworthy.

Major Barriers Impede Access

It’s clear that primary care providers play a critical role in improving health while reducing costs, but they can only play that role when people have access to care.

Without easy access, people miss out on preventive care that can improve their health and bring costs down – but that’s just the beginning. This lack of access can actually drive costs higher. Patients may seek treatment at the ER for non-urgent health issues that could be addressed in the primary care setting. Worse, they may delay medical care altogether until minor health issues become major problems – and are far more expensive to treat.

Chronic Conditions Become Especially Costly

The shortage of primary care doctors has a direct impact on the cost of chronic conditions – and it’s not good news for employers. The CDC reports that chronic conditions are the leading drivers of healthcare costs for businesses and cost U.S. businesses $36.4 billion a year because of employee absenteeism.

The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure holds true. In this case, annual well visits, routine screenings, early detection of health issues and chronic disease management are directly linked to improved patient outcomes and a decrease in overall healthcare spending.

Telehealth Solves the Problem

According to FAIR Health, telehealth claims spiked more than 8,000% in April 2020 compared to April 2019 – and as high as 26,000% in some parts of the country. Popularity shot up, too. A May 2020 survey by McKinsey & Company indicated that 76% of respondents were highly or moderately likely to use telehealth going forward, and 74% of users reported high satisfaction.

Said simply, telehealth has now become an indispensable part of the U.S. healthcare system.

Virtual primary care is telehealth’s next and most important evolution. Not only does it solve the looming shortage of family doctors, it also reduces healthcare costs and aligns with consumers’ wants and needs.

The Benefits of Virtual Primary Care

For consumers:

  • It delivers on the promise of patient-centered care.
  • It fundamentally brings care closer to home, making it easier for people to seek treatment when they need it and increasing the likelihood that they will do their part in managing their own health.
  • It offers advantages that are otherwise missing from American healthcare – like convenience, speed and ease – while delivering quality and continuity of care.
  • Amid COVID-19, it gives employees and their families a safer way to handle checkups and other important routine services.

For employers:

  • Not only does primary care improve health status and drive down long-term health spending, it’s considerably less expensive per visit than in-person care. A telehealth appointment averages about $40 while an in-office visit runs around $200 according to Healthcare Blue Book.
  • McKinsey & Company report that virtual primary care gives clinicians the tools they need to improve care management of patients with chronic conditions while also enhancing cost-efficiency.
  • Evidence prior to COVID-19 shows that telehealth solutions deployed for chronic populations can improve total cost of care by 2-3%. Of course, the actual opportunity is much more significant as telehealth continues to reinforce its place as the new normal.
  • Virtual primary care saves considerable out-of-office time. The average office visit takes about 121 minutes including drive time. And since few primary care doctors offer appointments outside the typical workday, that’s 121 minutes away from work. A telehealth visit averages 20 minutes and can be completed outside of regular business hours. 
  • It fulfills consumers’ expectations in a way the traditional model simply cannot, giving employers an edge in the race for talent.

Learn more about the advantages of virtual primary care by downloading this whitepaper.

Reach the World. Giving Made Easy with Impact.

Dr. Nicholas Lorenzo