Tuesday Nov 05, 2013

Getting Health Care Right, Even as We Change It

If there's one thing that's constant about health care in the United States these days, it's change. Health care reform swept a wave of new ideas out of theory and into practice, from insurance exchanges to accountable care. Advances in medical research mean that physicians have more treatments to help our patients than ever before. As a country, we're coming to terms with how complex health care is and how much change is still on the horizon.

Amidst all the change and complexity, though, the importance of the physician-patient relationship has stayed exactly the same. As I reviewed this month's workforce issue of Health Affairs, I was reminded of the more than 20,000 hours of training and education I completed, learning to provide the right care to patients despite a wide array of variables. Complexity is what physicians train for throughout our careers. As physicians, we have the education, expertise and experience necessary to ensure the highest quality of care for patients.

Being a primary care physician has never been more challenging or interesting, and fortunately, there are more of us than ever. The number of new primary care physicians increases every year, and by 2016, more than 3,000 new physicians will complete their training annually.

I can't imagine doing my job without the full breadth of training and education I received when becoming a family physician. Our patients' health challenges are growing increasingly complex. More members of our local communities -- whose families we often have cared for during the course of many years -- are developing multiple complex conditions that require advanced training and a keen insight into what might be causing overlapping health problems. According to the CDC, 45 percent of adults have two or more of the most common chronic conditions, and with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and persistently high childhood obesity, future generations are likely to face significant overlapping health challenges, as well.

Because of our training and our presence in virtually every community across the country, family physicians are uniquely able to mediate change and complexity in a way that helps make health care work better for patients. The relationships we have with patients, combined with our training and expertise, are key to our ability to ensure our patients get the right care at the right time. There's a reason that people with chronic conditions -- from Parkinson's disease to hypertension -- see primary care physicians at higher rates than they see subspecialists. 

Ultimately, that's what patients want. When they come to see us, our patients want to see a trusted partner in health who is expert enough to diagnose their problem, develop a comprehensive treatment plan, advise them and lead their care. We offer our patients exactly that because we devote more years to the study of medicine than any non-physician health care provider.

There's a lot that's changing with health care, but the core of why we became family physicians is our relationship with our patients, their families and their communities. Even as health care changes and evolves around us, we remain steadfastly committed to our patients. In that commitment, some things never change.

Reid Blackwelder, M.D., is President of the AAFP.

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