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Embracing a Diversified Future for US Primary Care

Published Online: January 17, 2013
Timothy Hoff, PhD
Although less focused upon given the current emphasis on the patient-centered medical home innovation, the future for US primary care is arguably one that will be characterized by diversity in service delivery structures and personnel. The drivers of this diversity include increased patient demand requiring a larger number of primary care access points; the need for lower-cost delivery structures that can flourish in a low-margin business model; greater interest in primary care delivery by retailers and hospitals that see their involvement as a means to enhance their core business goals; the increased desire by non-physician providers to gain work independence; and a growing cadre of younger PCPs whose career and job preferences leave them open to working in a variety of different settings and structures. A key issue to ask of a more diversified primary care system is whether or not it will be characterized by competition or cooperation. While a competitive system would not be unexpected given historical and current trends, such a system would likely stunt the prospects for a full revitalization of US primary care. However, there is reason to believe that a cooperative system is possible and would be advantageous, given the mutual dependencies that already exist among primary care stakeholders, and additional steps that could be taken to enhance such dependencies even more into the future.


(Am J Manag Care. 2013;19(1):e9-e13)
While the patient-centered medical home (PCMH) model of care has been suggested to strengthen traditional, physician-delivered primary care within a doctor’s office, the future of primary care is likely to be much more diversified in both its service delivery structures and personnel. This diversification will include retail walk-in clinics, employer-based primary care delivery, concierge care, hospital-affiliated practices, and practices led by nonphysician providers.

The drivers of this diversity include increased patient demand requiring a larger number of primary care access points; the need for lowercost delivery structures that can flourish in a low-margin business model; greater interest in primary care delivery by retailers and hospitals who see their involvement as a means to enhance their core business goals; the increased desire by non-physician providers to gain work independence; and a growing cadre of younger primary care physicians (PCPs) whose career and job preferences leave them open to working in a variety of different settings and structures (Figure). In addition, as several recent PCMH evaluations have shown, the current medical home model remains promising but also unproven in many ways, especially when looking at its ability to control costs, shape a wide variety of clinical outcomes, appeal to the general public, and deliver primary care efficiently on a long-term basis.1-3

The Need for Lower-Cost Primary Care Access Points

The notion of a future primary care delivery system that is diverse in its structural and personnel components makes sense given other trends now unfolding. First, US health reform and our country’s demographics stand to make access a more significant issue in primary care. Despite the promise of the patient-centered medical home (PCMH), for example, a key issue is whether or not this model can ensure a primary care delivery system with enough capacity and access points to satisfy the increased patient demand emanating from more individuals possessing insurance and an increasingly aging and sicker general population. Relying on a physician-centric PCMH model to improve nationwide access to primary care services is unrealistic given the resource, system integration, and other demands associated with establishing and maintaining full-fledged medical homes,4,5 and the model’s strict reliance on a physician-centric approach6 manifested through a more traditional primary care practice structure and reimbursement system. In certain parts of the country and for select demographic groups, other types of primary care delivery structures will be needed and other types of “medical homes” that are not so physician-dependent or require large fixed costs may be called upon to fill the gaps in service delivery.

In this way, an expected surge in patient demand nationally will push the marketplace to establish lower-cost models of primary care delivery that use physicians less and have lower overhead overall.7,8 For example, alternative delivery structures like retail clinics possess both the cost-leadership edge and capital support behind them to provide basic primary care in higher-risk (from a business standpoint) areas of the country such as rural and inner-city locales.9,10 These types of delivery structures may be cheaper to establish and run, meaning that for the same amount of capital investment, more of them are possible, in contrast to traditional primary care practices that rely heavily on physician labor. Their location within retail outlets traditionally found across a wide swath of geographic areas also gives the clinic model an advantage over free-standing primary care practices in reaching more individuals.

Primary Care as a “Loss Leader”

A related trend propelling system diversity is that primary care service delivery continues to have a lower profit margin than other forms of medical care.11,12 Thus, those funding the future expansion of primary care will likely seek to derive additional benefits from their investments. Retailers and hospitals are 2 funding sources for primary care expansion. Some retailers may incorporate primary care services into their businesses to enhance their overall brand, increase consumer traffic, and stimulate purchases of other goods and services within their stores, rather than as a focus for pure profit.13 Their approach to primary care delivery looks different from traditional practice-based primary care.

However, this does not preclude it from gaining popularity among select groups of consumers. For example, not only do the economics favor the retail clinic structure in the delivery of many basic primary care services, there is also evidence that retail clinics deliver some forms of primary care cheaper and on a par quality-wise with traditional delivery structures.8,10 Some patients, especially younger, healthier ones with less allegiance to traditional primary care and preferences for convenient, fast service, also appear satisfied with using these structures to meet various primary care needs.10,14,15 It is an open question as to whether a younger generation used to a world of instant access, excessive variety, and low barriers to information acquisition will embrace a more personally accountable, comprehensive primary care approach like the current PCMH model, or instead spread their allegiances around to multiple delivery structures and providers that are more nimble and meet their immediate needs.

Hospitals also have a renewed interest in primary care as a “loss leader.” This interest stems from the advent of accountable care organizations that require service integration to get paid; the potential inpatient and specialty-care revenue that primary care services could generate for a hospital16,17; and the strategic benefits offered through affiliation with different types of primary care service delivery.18 To these ends, some hospitals have begun partnering with retail clinics to expand their reach into hard-to-access geographic areas, fed by a drive to increase market share for other hospital-based services. For hospitals, the exact look and staffing of the primary care delivery structure with whom they affiliate may be less important than the fact that it performs a dual role as both a brand expander and patient feeder for their operations.

Shifts in the Primary Care Labor Force

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Issue: January 2013
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