Remember the movie “Doc Hollywood?” Michael J. Fox plays a young doctor about to embark on a career as a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. But he stops in a small town on his way to California, falls in love, learns to appreciate the importance of a “country” doctor and remains in the small town presumably to practice medicine for the rest of his career.
The movie is pure Hollywood. But it gets two things right: the shortage of primary care doctors and the fact that a primary care physician plays a central role in the health of a community.
These facts were true in 1991 when “Doc Hollywood” premiered; they are truer today. In fact, it isn’t just small towns that are experiencing a shortage of primary care physicians. It is big cities, too.
For example, the Health Resources and Services Administration has designated Spokane a health professional shortage area for primary care doctors. It is not uncommon for our customers to wait six to nine months before they can see a primary care doctor. This is especially true for new patients. The situation is even worse in rural areas of eastern Washington where residents may live hours from the nearest hospital or clinic.
Expensive diagnostic tools, mobile applications and easy-to-access electronic medical records capture the headlines, but nothing replaces the relationship between a primary care doctor and the patient.
I experienced this as a practicing physician, and I see it borne out in the claims data from our members. All the technology and data can’t replace the trust that develops between a patient and his or her doctor. In fact, numerous studies show that people who schedule regular visits with their primary care doctor are healthier and spend less time in emergency rooms.
This is why Premera is investing in increasing access to primary care throughout Washington state. Last week, we announced a $5.5 million grant to Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine to support the family medicine residency program at Pullman Regional Hospital and to establish new sites for graduate medical residency programs in eastern Washington.
The program operates under the simple premise that doctors stay and practice in the places where they complete their residencies. The more primary care doctors we can train in Washington, the more will stay here.
While putting more doctors into the pipeline makes sense for the future, what about now? How can we meet the immediate need for more doctors?
We studied that issue and concluded that we had to make a direct and immediate investment in not only increasing access to primary care but improving the patient experience.
There isn’t much point in adding doctors if they can’t spend the time they need to care for their patients or if the patient feels he or she is just another cost center—shuffled in and out of the office like they are at the DMV.
Together with Seattle-based Vera Whole Health, we are opening two new primary care centers in Spokane. The first center will open in January with a second center later next year. Operating under the name Vivacity Care Centers, our goal is to give patients a better experience than what they have been used to.
At Premera, we count some of the most iconic customer service brands in the Pacific Northwest as our customers. We want to apply the same commitment to serving patients seeking healthcare as these brands do their customers.
I know. It is a novel concept in an industry not known for delighting the customer, but that’s our goal with our Vivacity Care Centers.
For example, we are setting aside nearly half of our schedule at each center for same or next day appointments. Something just came up and you need to see your doctor, chances are we can accommodate you.
We don’t want you to feel rushed once you see your doctor. Our doctors will have 30 to 60 minutes to meet with you, conduct a thorough exam and ensure your questions have been answered.
One of the reasons we are collaborating with Vera Whole Health, which will operate the centers, is that they share our passion for looking at the whole health of the patient. Each of our centers will have nurses, behavioral health professionals, medical assistants and health coaches to help care for patients.
This is important because good healthcare isn’t just about stitching a wound or prescribing medication, it’s also about good mental health. Putting all these resources in one place gives patients the convenience of one-stop-shopping. Patients also are more likely to take advantage of these services if they don’t have to drive to another location.
Finally, as you would expect from a health insurance company, each center will have someone available to answer your health insurance questions and guide you easily and painlessly through the payment process.
This is just the beginning. Depending on demand, we expect to invest in more primary care centers in the years to come, giving primary care doctors a place to do what they do best—take care of you.
John Espinola, MD, MPH, is the Executive Vice President of Healthcare Services.