The Growing Importance of the Primary Care Physician

According to research from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and other reports, there are approximately 350,000 primary care physicians (PCPs) in the U.S. These PCPs often act as coordinators of patient care. This means they work with patients directly to determine if a specialist needs to be consulted, while also looking at the bigger picture of that patient’s overall care and health history.

Recent studies, including a 2010 report from American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) and   news coverage, reported that the U.S. is facing a shortage of doctors. While the exact numbers are hard to verify, some reports show that there could be a shortage of as many as 150,000 doctors over the next 15 years, with a specific unmet need for PCPs.

Therefore, healthcare reform has focused on strengthening and growing the number of PCPs. It’s believed that by increasing access to these physicians, some illness and disease can be prevented. It would also help ensure that everyone has access to high-quality care, and could help reduce healthcare costs overall by improving access to preventive care.

One specific aspect of healthcare reform, electronic health record (EHR) adoption, has focused a great deal on PCPs. Similar to growing the number of practicing PCPs, reforming the healthcare information technology landscape could help improve healthcare delivery and overall patient care. EHR systems are the foundation of this technology. While EHR adoption by a majority of physicians is the end goal, adoption by PCPs has been of particular interest, and HITECH programs and Medicare and Medicaid incentive programs have focused on bolstering EHR adoption.

According to the recent reports, some efforts are working. The latest adoption report from the Office of Standards and Interoperability of the Office of the National Coordinator shows that 40 percent of PCPs  have a basic EHR in place, which is nearly double the percentage from 2008. Additionally, according to a study from Health Affairs, even though the percentage of physicians who reported having any type of EHR increased from 18 percent to 55 percent from 2002 and 2011, PCPs adopted EHRs at a faster rate during the same period.

Efforts to increase the number of PCPs are also seeing some positive results. The latest report from the AAMC shows that U.S. medical schools are gaining on a 30 percent enrollment increase that the organization had previously recommended.

Since the number of potential new physicians is on the upswing, and higher EHR adoption rates are being tracked by PCPs, some positive gains have been made to help reach the overall goal of improving patient care.

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