by Gregg Meyer, MD, MSc

Primary care is the foundation of well-coordinated health care. A primary care provider (PCP) is responsible for meeting all of a patient’s health care needs by directly providing services and arranging for a range of specialty and hospital services when they are needed. Access to a PCP who knows you, your healthcare needs, and the system that can serve you can make all the difference.

As a result, Partners’ commitment to primary care is deep. We have a network of more than 1,000 primary care physicians in eastern Massachusetts managing the care of roughly 500,000 patients each year. We are also improving the way primary care works. Evolution to the patient-centered medical home model (PCMH) is a priority for our primary care practices, because it can mean a better organized, more effective experience for our patients. By 2018, all Partners PCP practices will have met the rigorous standards for PCMH designation. We’ve also made it a priority to build primary care capacity in the communities we serve so that our patients have access to high quality, convenient, and more affordable care.

Unfortunately, many patients in Massachusetts still struggle to find a PCP who is accepting new patients and their insurance plan. Those trying to obtain primary care here at Partners HealthCare are no exception. How can we have a truly great health care system if patients can’t access foundational services like primary care?

At Partners, we’re doing what we can to improve access to primary care through four major initiatives:

1. Enhance the Supply of Providers

Each of our hospitals and practices has set targets for recruiting and retaining physicians and advanced practice clinicians (APCs), like nurse practitioners. We’re making some progress – in the past two years, we have added 65 new PCPs to our network.

We also are working with Harvard Medical School and the MGH Institute of Health Professions to attract and train the next generation of primary care providers and are especially intent on improving the supply of high-quality providers in community settings.

2. Work in Teams

Health care is a team-sport these days, and PCPs often serve in the role of the team captain. This is the notion behind the patient-centered medical home (PCMH). In this setting PCPs are responsible for coordinating care in the primary care office setting and across all other care locations, such as retail clinics, urgent care, emergency departments, inpatient sites, rehabilitation settings, and home. With such a broad and complex set of responsibilities, our primary care teams include physicians, nurses, medical assistants, and other personnel who undergo specialized team training and work in small groups to oversee the care of specific types of patients.

3. Offer Rapid Access

Being responsive to acute medical issues is crucial so most of our primary care practices have adopted enhanced access tools, such as same-day appointments and extended hours. Partners has opened urgent care centers to help meet some of those needs when the usual PCP office is not available. And we’ve realized that some patients do not need to be seen in person for their primary care team to address their medical issues. So we have developed tools like secure email via Partners Patient Gateway for prescription refill requests and clinical questions that are less time sensitive. Patients also can use a phone-based nurse line to ask specific questions that need a faster response than electronic communication tools. The promise of virtual health care is also becoming a reality in innovative primary care practices across Partners; we’ve found that virtual visits are particularly helpful for follow-up.

4. Enhance Provider Search Tools

Despite the large number of physicians who are licensed to practice medicine in Massachusetts, it isn’t always easy to find accurate information regarding provider availability. At Partners, we have launched a new online Find-A-Doctor search tool for patients, employees, and referring physicians to quickly find the right provider based on availability, insurance accepted, geographic proximity, hospital/practice preference, language, and/or gender search filters. And it’s easy to use – it’s been a year since we launched the new website, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Visit on your desktop or mobile device to search for a provider by a variety of criteria.

Assuring an adequate supply of primary care providers is a national challenge. At Partners, we are using these four strategies to do what we can to make high quality, affordable primary care available in the communities we serve.

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Topics: Patient Experience, Access to Care, Community Health Centers

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