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A primary care physician for every American, science panel urges

The federal government must aggressively bolster primary care and connect more Americans with a dedicated source of care, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warn in a major report that sounds the alarm about an endangered foundation of the U.S. health system.

The urgently worded report, which comes as internists, family doctors and pediatricians nationwide struggle with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, calls for a broad recognition that primary care is a “common good” akin to public education.

The authors recommend that all Americans select a primary care provider or be assigned one, a landmark step that could reorient how care is delivered in the nation’s fragmented medical system.

And the report calls on major government health plans such as Medicare and Medicaid to shift money to primary care and away from the medical specialties that have long commanded the biggest fees in the U.S. system.

“High-quality primary care is the foundation of a robust health care system, and perhaps more importantly, it is the essential element for improving the health of the U.S. population,” the report concludes. “Yet, in large part because of chronic underinvestment, primary care in the United States is slowly dying.”

The report, which is advisory, does not guarantee federal action. But reports from the national academies have helped support major health initiatives over the years, such as curbing tobacco use among children and protecting patients from medical errors.

Strengthening primary care has long been seen as a critical public health need. And research dating back more than half a century shows that robust primary care systems save money, improve people’s health and even save lives.

“We know that better access to primary care leads to more timely identification of problems, better management of chronic disease and better coordination of care,” said Melinda Abrams, executive vice president of the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based foundation that studies health systems around the world.

Recognizing the value of this kind of care, many nations — from wealthy democracies like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to middle-income countries such as Costa Rica and Thailand — have deliberately constructed health systems around primary care.

And many have reaped significant rewards. Europeans with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and depression reported significantly better health if they lived in a country with a robust primary care system, a group of researchers found.

For decades, experts here have called for this country to make a similar commitment.

But only about 5% of U.S. health care spending goes to primary care, versus an average of 14% in other wealthy nations, according to data collected by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Other research shows that primary spending has declined in many U.S. states in recent years.

The situation grew even more dire as the pandemic forced thousands of primary care physicians — who didn’t receive the government largesse showered on major medical systems — to lay off staff members or even close their doors.

Reversing this slide will require new investment, the authors of the new report conclude. But, they argue, that should yield big dividends.

“If we increase the supply of primary care, more people and more communities will be healthier, and no other part of health care can make this claim,” said Dr. Robert Phillips, a family physician who co-chaired the committee that produced the report. Phillips also directs the Center for Professionalism and Value in Health Care at the American Board of Family Medicine.

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