2010 National Conference

Strive to Reform Health Care, AAMC President Tells Students, Residents

August 04, 2010 01:50 pm Barbara Bein

Darrell Kirch, M.D., president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, took the stage July 29 during the 37th AAFP National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Students in Kansas City, Mo., to urge family medicine residents and students to take up the challenge of reforming the U.S. health care system.

"When I was a student and resident, I thought my colleagues would fix all the problems in American health care," Kirch told an overflowing crowd in the main stage lecture hall. "We didn't get it done.

"Why didn't I become cynical? Because of the convergence of things that have happened this year."

Kirch said the contemporary medical culture has been influenced by two legacies: that of Abraham Flexner, whose 1910 seminal work, "Medical Education in the United States and Canada," provided the first blueprint of medical education, and that of President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the 1965 Medicare bill that provided federal health insurance coverage to the elderly and disabled.

Flexner brought medical education back to the culture of the university, Kirch said, but Medicare solidified an economic model of medicine that is built around fee-for-service and that rewards performance of procedures and tests rather than evaluation and management skills. Physicians continue to live with that system today, he added.

Fee-for-Service 'Corrosive' Element

Darrell Kirch, M.D., president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, says fee-for-service payment systems should be replaced by more population-based models to avoid pitting "proceduralists" against "the primary care specialties."

"I think the most corrosive element (when seeking to foster collaborative relationships between these two groups) is fee-for-service reimbursement," Kirch told medical students and residents in a question-and-answer session following his July 29 opening lecture during the 2010 National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students in Kansas City, Mo. "The thing that will help most is shifting that (fee-for-service system) to population-based payment methods."

Kirch also said he believes that the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs will push for reform of the current payment methods.

Now, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act promises to whittle down the proportion of Americans who have no insurance, but it will create problems in access to care, Kirch said. He pointed to the lessons being learned in Massachusetts, which, in 2006, became the first state in the country to enact a law requiring its residents to carry health insurance.

"You give more people insurance, but you lay bare your access problem, and you need more physicians in primary care," said Kirch.

In the face of these political and economic realities, have we really reformed health care? Kirch asked his audience. His answer: No, it is health insurance coverage -- not the health care system -- that has been reformed.

"The lack of health insurance coverage has ripple effects throughout the entire system," Kirch said. "But we also need a rational payment system. I can't tell you how severe the cognitive dissonance is in the health care system."

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