Primary care’s bad rap

Primary care’s often-negative reputation as stressful and unrewarding apparently starts early in the medical education process – possibly before students even enter medical school, a recent study has found.

The study appeared earlier this year in the Family Medicine journal. More recently, the findings and their implications for family practice medicine were explored in an interview by the American Academy of Family Practice with one of the study’s authors, Dr. Julie Phillips. an assistant professor of family medicine at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Primary care has struggled for several years with perceptions that it’s boring, stressful, demanding, low-paying and hemmed in with constraints on everything from insurer requirements to time pressures in the exam room. Whether this is perception or reality, it has had an impact: Fewer students who enter medical school are choosing a career in primary care.

The authors of the study wanted to learn more about how primary care is perceived by medical students and whether their perceptions are changed by what they experience during their training.

Surveys were conducted among 983 medical students at three medical schools between 2006 and 2008. The students were asked to rate statements such as “primary care physicians have too much administrative work to do” and “time pressures keep primary care physicians from developing good patient relationships.” Similar questions were posed about the students’ perception of specialty physicians.

Perhaps the most eye-opening conclusion of the study is this: Negative views of the daily routine of primary care were already present in many of the students at the beginning of their training. What’s more, these views didn’t really change as students progressed through medical school, even after they had a chance to directly observe and participate in patient care.

What to make of these findings? It’s clear that “contemporary physicians struggle to meet the high expectations set by patients and their profession with limited time and resources,” the authors wrote. “Our date demonstrate that students are paying attention to the struggle.”

The results were “kind of discouraging,” Phillips told AAFP News Now. She said she also was surprised that the students’ perceptions were formed so early. “That makes me think that some of their views of what it’s like to be a doctor actually don’t come from medical school but from the larger cultural perception of what physician work is like – and especially what primary care is like.”

There were some glimmers of hope. Students who completed a primary care clerkship (typically during the third year of medical school) and had seen real-life primary care in action were more positive about the ability of primary care doctors to develop good relationships with their patients, in spite of the time constraints in the exam room. “It may be that actually spending time observing physicians helps to break some negative stereotypes,” the study’s authors noted.

The researchers also learned that some students will choose primary care regardless of their perceptions about the daily grind. This suggests that individual values and goals play an important role in the career choices of medical students, the authors wrote. “The study reinforces the importance of admitting students with primary care-oriented values and primary care interest and reinforcing those values over the course of medical school, if we are to produce greater numbers of primary care physicians.”

We’ve come a long way from the romanticized ideal of the family doctor that prevailed a generation or two ago. But did the ideal ever really match the reality? If you talk to physicians privately, some of them will admit there’s a great deal of grumbling about the profession and not enough focus on what makes it rewarding. To be sure, there are all too many reasons for doctors to be frustrated and exhausted and discouraged, but at what point do the negatives start to drown out everything else?

Phillips challenged the medical profession to become more involved in supporting new models of care, such as the patient-centered medical home, that can breathe new life into primary care and make it a better career choice. Family doctors also should try to share what’s good about their specialty, she said. “Students listen to what we say. We should try to be positive about the great things in our everyday work, because there are many wonderful things about being a family physician.”

3 thoughts on “Primary care’s bad rap

  1. …and not a word about repaying student loans and financing malpractice insurance. THOSE are the issues. You may get more people in the field if they don’t think they’re going to spend their first 10-15 working years in the red. These days most of the people talking kids out of med school are their parents who are doctors.

  2. I agree that educational loans and the malpractice burden are significant problems. Because the researchers chose to focus this particular study on medical students’ perceptions of the working conditions for primary care doctors, that’s what I focused on too – especially since this is an issue that hasn’t been qualitatively explored very much.

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