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Wednesday Oct 15, 2014

The Flight of My Life: Reflecting on Six Years of Service

In its more than 40 years, my little Hatz biplane has had quite a life. In the two decades we have shared the sky, we have introduced more than 400 kids to the thrill of flying and traveled all the way across the country. It has brought me immeasurable joy.

But like all things physical, wear and age were beginning to show. So six years ago, we started the long process of restoration from the ground up. We replaced fabric covering, installed new instruments and a wood propeller, and finished with an updated paint job.

Today, she looks like a beautiful new airplane that's ready for new adventures. When you fly as a pilot and when you restore a plane, you keep a record -- a logbook -- that lists every flight and every improvement you make.

Coincidentally, it was six years ago that I joined the AAFP's Board of Directors. In many ways, looking back over those six years is like opening my Academy logbook.

Just like for my plane, there was a lot of work to be done in family medicine. The specialty was in crisis. Payment was woefully inadequate. AAFP membership was down. Student interest was low. Forty-seven million Americans were uninsured. As a candidate running for the AAFP Board, I asked the Congress of Delegates, rhetorically, if we were actually witnessing the collapse of primary care.

Fast forward to today, and the outlook for family medicine has changed. Day to day, our work in the trenches continues to be challenging, but the forecast for the future from the 10,000-foot level of the Board chair is now encouraging.

Six years ago, we knew family medicine was valued by our patients -- we could see it every day in our offices. Barbara Starfield, M.D., M.P.H., had showcased the value of primary care in her research. Still, recognition of those truths -- and support for primary care – from payers, employers and government was lacking.

Today, the patient-centered medical home model has shown that improving primary care is the key to meeting the triple aim for health care: higher quality, lower costs and improved care for patients. The Comprehensive Primary Care Initiative launched by CMS' Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation is changing the way our government pays for primary care -- paying for value over volume -- and it is expanding. A growing number of employers, health plans and government agencies are beginning to demonstrate that they really value what we do. When it comes to payment reform, we haven't arrived at our destination, but we are on the way.

On Capitol Hill, we no longer have to explain to legislators and congressional staff what we family physicians do and why we matter. Federal agencies seek the Academy's input on important health care issues, and legislators are actively looking for ways to train more family physicians to address our country's primary care shortage.

But what about access to care? Today, there are 10 million newly insured Americans thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Our uninsured rate now stands at 13 percent -- 5 percent lower than it was six years ago and the lowest it has been since 2000. Americans may be split on the ACA, but there is overwhelming support for some of the basic tenets of the law: getting more people covered by insurance and reforming unfair insurance rules, including no longer allowing denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, caps on coverage, or retroactive canceling of coverage after someone becomes sick.

However, there is still much work to be done. We need restraints on rising health care costs, malpractice reform and a path to creating the primary care workforce our country deserves. And we still have  millions of uninsured. We haven't arrived at our Academy's ultimate goal of health care for all, but we are on the way.

Interest in family medicine is up nationally. AAFP membership reached a record high this year at 115,900. And for the fifth consecutive year, the number of medical students choosing family medicine climbed higher than the previous year. Twenty-five percent of all U.S. medical students are now Academy members.

To meet the needs of our nation's health care system, those numbers must continue to grow; this year, the AAFP took steps to proactively ensure that they can. Last month, the Academy unveiled a proposal that would significantly change the way graduate medical education is financed. Our proposal would bring transparency and accountability to a system that invests $15 billion a year on physician training but is unable to produce a workforce that aligns with the needs of the nation.

I'm also proud of the work the Academy is doing in public health. Last year, we included the social determinants of health in our strategic plan. And this year, we began the process of reimagining Tar Wars -- a program I helped develop more than 25 years ago -- as part of a comprehensive tobacco and nicotine prevention and control program that will include new tools for family physicians, community programs and advocacy.

We've talked about where the Academy has been, but where are we going? During the AAFP Assembly in Washington next week, the AAFP -- along with seven other national family medicine organizations -- will launch a national campaign that is the culmination of the Family Medicine for America's Health initiative and the biggest thing to happen in family medicine since the Future of Family Medicine project in 2004. This campaign will speak not only to family physicians but also to patients, payers and others, defining what we do as family physicians and why primary care is the vital foundation of our health care system.

Now when I climb in my biplane, I can tell she is still the same plane I have known and loved all these years, yet with new energy and new life -- the way she climbs, handles and how her paint flashes in the sun. She has come a long way.

Today, we are all part of a rebirth of family medicine. Our voice is being heard, our contributions are being valued, and we, too, have come a long way. Our country is counting on us to continue to be "bold champions" for America's health, transforming health care for optimal health for everyone.

As for me, my Academy logbook is now full. It's time to open up a new logbook and start my next adventure. Thank you for granting me the privilege of serving you. It has been the flight of a lifetime.

Jeff Cain, M.D., is Board chair of the AAFP.

Posted at 02:01PM Oct 15, 2014 by Jeffrey Cain, M.D.

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