The Royal College of General Practice
(RCGP) and the Centre for Workforce Intelligence
(CFWI) agree: too small a supply of GPs will meet a rising tide of demand. In the UK, spotty shortages exist now, but will become widespread over the next decade.
The causes of rising clinical demand are well known:
Little analysis of root causes
- Continued growth of the things medicine can do
- Surge of lifestyle diseases
- Burgeoning patient devices that collect data and require monitoring by clinicians
- Increased public expectations for access to GPs
- Aging of the population
- Emergence of multiple, complex chronic illness
- Diversion of GPs to management activities such as commissioning
Less is known about the underlying causes of the shortfall of supply in GPs. The RCGP cites lagging GP incomes as a source of dissatisfaction, with consequent dampening effects on medical student choices of general practice specialist careers. The CFWI models GP supply, but offers little analysis of the root causes of the declining intake to GP careers.
While both the RCGP and the CFWI repeatedly emphasize the need to make general practice more attractive and increase its uptake, they have few suggestions about how to do so other than promoting it better. In the meantime, they advocate, as does the NHS, that larger, multi-skilled teams must grow to service the increasing need, and that the key barrier to effective teamwork is lack of integration.
I want to raise two significant policy concerns about the direction that the UK is taking to mitigate the primary care â€œcrisis
â€. First, I postulate that the reason that medical students are not choosing general practice is less a matter of money than of increasing practice complexity and life style. Second, I suggest that the â€œsolution
â€ of larger, better-integrated teams is unproven and, further, may actually diminish productivity, and worsen, rather than relieve, the stress of work on GPs while their satisfactions further diminish.
There is little evidence that medical students will select GP careers if they earned more. In fact, over the past five years, during the rapid upturn in GP incomes, dissatisfaction among GPs grew and fewer medical students, especially men, chose to enter general practice. In the US, studies have shown that life style is an important factor in the diminishing number of medical students entering primary care. At the same time, corporate primary care
is growing, and larger practices with more salaried doctors are becoming the work choice of preference.
This suggests that young doctors are put-off by the complexity, responsibility, the long hours, and the stress of general practice, and seek to transfer those risks to someone else. Without fixing this, throwing more money at the problem is unlikely to reverse the trend. Money, of course, is important, but itâ€™s merely an enabler of career choice and a deterrent if too low. Compensation alone doesn't appear to be a sufficient incentive to chose primary care.
Multi-purpose teams failing
The idea is seductive that integrated, multl-manpower teams are a solution to the GP shortfall. However, early evidence from America doesnâ€™t suggest that the US-version of integrated, primary care teams (the patient-centered medical home) is achieving the efficiencies and improved care that they were touted to deliver. Recent studies (see: Friedberg M.W., 26th
February 2014, Journal of the American Medical Association
) show some small improvements in quality measures, but no change in cost-effectiveness in a group of enthusiastic early adopters.
There are many reasons to doubt that simple team integration occurs by encouraging it among those working together, and much to suggest that the cost of integration is a major barrier to a cost-effective strategy to increase manpower. Information technology, as a field, discovered years ago that taking complex tasks and dividing them among many different subgroups was dis-economic.
Additional manpower not the answer
As long ago as 1975, Frederick Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month
argued convincingly that by, â€œadding manpower to a late project makes it laterâ€.
No surprise then that when one counts the cost of personnel, the coordination mismatches, the communication time, the complexity of handoffs, and duplication of services, teamwork is more a theoretical concept than a practical working model.
Adopt best practice
What, then, might one consider as a possible solution to the increasing stress, complexity, and uncertainty of life as a GP? What is needed to facilitate integration among and between team members and patients? Surely, we can draw lessons from other industries. Instead of throwing more manpower at their problems, multiple industries are using information technology to offload work to the consumer (think of Cash Points
), connect the participants up in real time, and create smart, real-time process support.
The role of technology
Digital infrastructure for general practice has failed to keep up with the rest of the world. The electronic medical record documents what has been done but does little to help doctors and other health workers to do their work. There is no infrastructure to help patients. Information technology should be providing an infrastructure to make general practice easier and better to do.
Merely throwing non-GP manpower at their problems will make the life of the GP more complicated and less satisfying. It is time to invest in true infrastructure innovation in the NHS. It wonâ€™t be cheap, but it is the only answer to the threat that general practice will fail to meet the needs of the population in future.