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Rescuing Primary Care, Part 2

In Part 1, we discussed how primary care is being acquired and distorted by huge corporations pursuing massive profits. Today, we present a competing vision: a broad social movement to reclaim primary care as a “common good” focused on public benefit.

April 21, 2023

Forging a Social Movement to Dismantle Entrenched Power and Liberate Primary Care as a Common Good
Annals Of Family Medicine
March/April 2023
By Kevin Grumbach

ABSTRACT: The state of family medicine and primary care in the United States is precarious, afflicted by chronic underinvestment. Family physicians and their allies should not expect different policy outcomes without adopting a different theory of change and tactical approach to reform. I argue: (1) high-quality primary care is a common good, as asserted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; (2) a market-based health system captured by extractive capitalism is inimical to primary care as a common good; (3) professionalism has both aided and constrained family physicians as agents of change for primary care as a common good; and, (4) to actualize primary care as a common good, family physicians must embrace “counterculture professionalism” to join with patients, primary care workers, and other allies in a social movement demanding fundamental restructuring of the health system and democratization of health that takes power back from interests profiting from the status quo and reorients the system to one grounded in healing relationships in primary care. This restructuring should take the form of a publicly financed system of universal coverage for direct primary care, with a minimum of 10% of total US health spending allocated to Primary Care for All.

Over past decades, several waves of health reform and advocacy efforts offered hope of revitalizing the specialty of family medicine and the primary care sector: the rise of managed care in the 1990s; the Joint Principles of the Patient- Centered Medical Home in 2007; enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010; the launching of Family Medicine for America’s Health in 2013. Yet the reality on the ground has not fundamentally improved for family physicians and others working in primary care, or for patients struggling to obtain high-quality primary care. Between 2005-2015, the number of primary care physicians per capita in the United States declined, primary care visits per capita decreased, and waiting times for new primary care appointments lengthened. The earnings gap between primary care physicians and physicians in other specialties widened and burnout remains high. Most tellingly, only about 5% of national health expenditures in the United States are spent on primary care—one-half or less than the proportion spent in Canada and Europe.

A Social Movement for Primary Care as a Common Good

To actualize primary care as a common good, family physicians must embrace what I call “counterculture professionalism” to join with patients, community members, primary care workers, and other allies to build a broad-based social movement demanding a fundamental restructuring of the health system and democratization of health that takes power back from interests profiting from the status quo and reorients the system to one grounded in healing relationships in primary care. A social movement must have clarity about what it wants to achieve, and how to achieve it.

By social movement, I mean a coming together of people and organizations united by a sense of common purpose counter to the dominant power. The consequential issues of our times—climate change, systemic racism, inequality of wealth, gun violence, reproductive rights, among others—are all contests for the common good. Progress requires an activated citizenry working in solidarity to challenge profits, power, and privilege that harm collective well-being. High quality primary care for all is not simply a parochial interest for family medicine. In the US context, it is a radical proposition that calls for family physicians to find common cause with others who share this goal.

Comment by: Jim Kahn

Kevin Grumbach (a colleague at UCSF) is a long-time leader in the single payer movement and in family medicine. He is thoroughly frustrated by the failure of typical policy tools – laws and high-profile reports – to mitigate the declining role of primary care in US health care. Our population suffers as a result.

Addressing family medicine doctors, Kevin proposes a broad-based social movement to reclaim primary care. His call to action is stirring. Kevin is realistic about the challenges facing social change, given powerful entrenched opponents. Yet he sees a movement as the only chance to revive primary care, given the futility of traditional policy levers.

Should the single payer movement endorse “primary care for all”, leaving specialist and hospital care for the time being in the hands of existing insurers and providers? Kevin proposes that a “successful PC4All program might prompt the nation to consider not only primary care, but all health care, to be a common good, and to join other countries with advanced capitalist economies in implementing a comprehensive, tax-financed universal health care program.”

Is “primary care for all” a stepping-stone for “health care for all”?

Maybe the more circumscribed revolution has a greater chance of success, demonstrating the value of a public approach to health care financing, and building the large and strong coalition needed for comprehensive health system transformation.

Lots to contemplate here.

About the Commentator, Jim Kahn

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Jim (James G.) Kahn, MD, MPH (editor) is an Emeritus Professor of Health Policy, Epidemiology, and Global Health at the University of California, San Francisco. His work focuses on the cost and effectiveness of prevention and treatment interventions in low and middle income countries, and on single payer economics in the U.S. He has studied, advocated, and educated on single payer since the 1994 campaign for Prop 186 in California, including two years as chair of Physicians for a National Health Program California.

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