Are pediatricians an endangered species?
This is the question that was recently posed on a listserv I read, as well as here and here and here. Stagnating or declining reimbursement for primary care and escalating financial pressures (particularly for vaccines) make it harder and harder for pediatric practices to survive. Meanwhile, nurse practitioners and retail-based clinics are claiming they can do the same thing we can, only with more convenience and less cost. The future doesn't look good.
A CEO of a Boston hospital believes insurers will eventually start realizing the value of preventive medicine, and start reimbursing, or shifting funding, accordingly.
But insurers--not to mention the government, via Medicare and Medicaid--have long known how good a deal preventive medicine is. There's even been data to back it all up, for years and years. Just look at vaccines. Yet insurers continue to pay ridiculously low amounts for vaccines (sometimes even under our purchase cost!), or similarly pathetic rates for infant check-ups. Because they can. They know (as I alluded to in my last post) that doctors--especially primary care doctors--are not businesspeople. We are here to help others, and if we have to shoulder some of that burden to care for our youngest and most vulnerable, we do it. The surgeons raise a proper stink if they don't get "fair" reimbursement for that gall bladder removal or tonsillectomy; we just suck it up and see another few patients per day.
There has been talk about creating value. Fight the retail-based clinics by offering evening hours, or open-access appointments (a type of scheduling that basically insures everyone who wants to be seen, is seen, that day). Show the insurers the data that our great care can keep the kids out of the expensive ER, and is therefore worth something to them. Or create programs that offer convenience and value to both patients and insurers--such as weight-loss classes, new parent discussion groups, or asthma education sessions.
These suggestions are great, but they can't be done by a solo pediatrician, or even a small group. Only a large group can do it. And many are doing it, or at least starting.
The days of the solo pediatrician are indeed numbered. The pressures are too great, and the innovations can't be reached, at least not without burning yourself out.
This doesn't spell the end of pediatricians, however. A good friend and colleague of mine likes to say that pediatricians are the last generalists. I don't mean your country doc, cradle-to-grave caregiver, delivering babies in the middle of the night at the Smiths' farm and being paid with a hog and a bundt cake. (There may be a few of those family practitioners still around, but they're not even endangered, they're basically extinct, outside of film or TV.) I mean the I'll-treat-anything-that's-bothering-you doc, the absolute-expert-about-the-whole-person physician. The Save-The-Day kind of doctor who, in this case, is the ultimate authority on kids. The doc who can resuscitate and stabilize a premature infant, start an umbilical line, calculate a drip, bag and intubate, and perform the spinal tap, all at 3 a.m. The doc who can differentiate ADHD from a learning disorder from a simple acting out, and start correcting any of the above. The doc who, even if he can't insert the ear tubes, can still keep straight a chronic serous otitis from a Eustachian tube dysfunction from an acute suppurative otitis media, figure out the right medicine, and--most importantly--explain it all to the mother who never made it past seventh grade. And the doc who might talk to the local PTA about newly licensed vaccines one night, and to the district attorney about a case of child abuse the next.
We may not do all of those things everyday, but we've been trained well enough that we can. If it concerns kids, we can handle it. Period.
And--I know this is going to get me some of my first hate mail--that Medical Degree means something. I'll say this with sincere respect: NP's can do great things, and bring wonderful perspective to the craft of medicine. Both NPs and MDs can follow protocols, develop judgment from a wealth of experience, and communicate well. But the MD has the base and the background to be the Authority. Only the MD has the training in biochemistry, psychology, pathology, pharmacology, epidemiology, research, the whole toolkit, and the mindset to be able to deal with the unexpected. A pediatrician's scope of practice is limited only by what he or she wants to tackle.
As long as that remains true, there will be a need for pediatricians. We are the generalists who specialize in children. We may be practicing in large mega-groups, or employed in government clinics, but we will be around as long as there are kids.
And maybe that's what I like best about being a pediatrician.