How primary care workforce trends impact patient care

There is much concern about the shortage of primary care physicians in the US today. The trend continues as more medical school students choose higher-paying specialty physician tracks. Christopher Barbey, Nikhil Sahni, Robert Kocher, and Michael Chernew recently examined the research, including the numbers and relevant studies, with the goal of understanding “the trends underlying the growth in the clinical workforce and their potential implications for health care spending, health policy, and health system design.”

In their research, the team discovered that between 2005 and 2015, “the share of the physician workforce devoted to primary care actually decreased from 44 percent to 37 percent, and the number of primary care physicians per capita has remained roughly flat.” The decrease in primary care physician numbers means that patients may have less access to primary care. The research team found that the gap was being filled by physician assistants and nurse practitioners, however, and those numbers were actually increasing.

Given this primary care workforce trend, the need for efficiency in practice management and for coordinated care becomes even greater. Primary care physicians who use electronic health records (EHRs) will find that they have more time to spend with their patients – giving patients greater access – as they will need to spend less time on paperwork.

Coordinated care between physician assistants, nurse practitioners, specialty providers, and the primary care provider becomes even more important as more physician assistants and nurse practitioners see patients on the primary care provider’s behalf. Coordination in an EHR system enables all healthcare providers to understand the patient’s complete medical profile, including being able to view visit notes, medications, and lab results.

Patient care may see a significant shift as the number of primary care physicians decreases and the number of physician assistants and nurse practitioners seeing patients increases. However, the quality of that patient care can remain consistent with the use of EHRs to provide coordinated care and efficient practice management.