Five years ago, I started the Fixing Healthcare podcast with the aim of spotlighting the boldest possible solutions—ones that could completely transform our nation’s broken medical system.
But since then, rather than improving, U.S. healthcare has fallen further behind its global peers, notching far more failures than wins. In that time, the rate of chronic disease has climbed while life expectancy has fallen, dramatically. Nearly half of American adults now struggle to afford healthcare. In addition, a growing mental-health crisis grips our country. Maternal mortality is on the rise. And healthcare disparities are expanding along racial and socioeconomic lines.
Reflecting on why few if any of these recommendations have been implemented, I don’t believe the problem has been a lack of desire to change or the quality of ideas. Rather, the biggest obstacle has been the immense size and scope of the changes proposed.
To overcome the inertia, our nation will need to narrow its ambitions and begin with a few incremental steps that address key failures. Here are three actionable and inexpensive steps that elected officials and healthcare leaders can quickly take to improve our nation’s health:
1. Shore Up Primary Care
Compared to the United States, the world’s most-effective and highest-performing healthcare systems deliver better quality of care at significantly lower costs.
One important difference between us and them: primary care.
In most high-income nations, primary care makes up roughly half of the physician workforce. In the United States, it accounts for less than 30% (with a projected shortage of 48,000 primary care physicians over the next decade).
Primary care—better than any other specialty—simultaneously increases life expectancy while lowering overall medical expenses by (a) screening for and preventing diseases and (b) helping patients with chronic illness avoid the deadliest and most-expensive complications (heart attack, stroke, cancer).
But considering that it takes at least three years after medical school to train a primary care physician, to make a dent in the shortage over the next five years the U.S. government must act immediately:
The first action is to expand resident education for primary care. Congress, which authorizes the funding, would allocate $200 million annually to create 1,000 additional primary-care residency positions each year. The cost would be less than 0.2% of federal spending on healthcare.
The second action requires no additional spending. Instead, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which covers the cost of care for roughly half of all American adults, would shift dollars to narrow the $108,000 pay gap between primary care doctors and specialists. This will help attract the best medical students to the specialty.
Together, these actions will bolster primary care and improve the health of millions.
2. Use Technology To Expand Access, Lower Costs
A decade after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, 30 million Americans are without health insurance while tens of millions more are underinsured, limiting access to necessary medical care.
Furthermore, healthcare is expected to become even less affordable for most Americans. Without urgent action, national medical expenditures are projected to rise from $4.3 trillion to $7.2 trillion over the next eight years, and the Medicare trust fund will become insolvent.
With costs soaring, payers (businesses and government) will resist any proposal that expands coverage and, most likely, will look to restrict health benefits as premiums rise.
Almost every industry that has had to overcome similar financial headwinds did so with technology. Healthcare can take a page from this playbook by expanding the use of telemedicine and generative AI.
At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, telehealth visits accounted for 69% of all physician appointments as the government waived restrictions on usage. And, contrary to widespread fears at the time, patients and doctors rated the quality, convenience and safety of these virtual visits as excellent. However, with the end of Covid-19, many states are now restricting telemedicine, particularly when clinicians practice in a different state than the patient.
To expand telemedicine use—both for physical and mental health issues—state legislators and regulators will need to loosen restrictions on virtual care. This will increase access for patients and diminish the cost of medical care.
It doesn’t make sense that doctors can provide treatment to people who drive across state lines, but they can’t offer the same care virtually when the individual is at home.
Similarly, physicians who faced a shortage of hospital beds during the pandemic began to treat patients in their homes. As with telemedicine, the excellent quality and convenience of care drew praise from clinicians and patients alike.
Building on that success, doctors could combine wearable devices and generative AI tools like ChatGPT to monitor patients 24/7. Doing so would allow physicians to relocate care—safely and more affordably—from hospitals to people’s homes.
Translating this technology-driven opportunity into standard medical practice will require federal agencies like the FDA, NIH and CDC to encourage pilot projects and facilitate innovative, inexpensive applications of generative AI, rather than restricting their use.
3. Reduce Disparities In Medical Care
American healthcare is a system of haves and have-nots, where your income and race heavily determine the quality of care you receive.
Black patients, in particular, experience poorer outcomes from chronic disease and greater difficulty accessing state-of-the-art treatments. In childbirth, black mothers in the U.S. die at twice the rate of white women, even when data are corrected for insurance and financial status.
Generative AI applications like ChatGPT can help, provided that hospitals and clinicians embrace it for the purpose of providing more inclusive, equitable care.
Previous AI tools were narrow and designed by researchers to mirror how doctors practiced. As a result, when clinicians provided inferior care to Black patients, AI outputs proved equally biased. Now that we understand the problem of implicit human bias, future generations of ChatGPT can help overcome it.
The first step will be for hospitals leaders to connect electronic health record systems to generative AI apps. Then, they will need to prompt the technology to notify clinicians when they provide insufficient care to patients from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds. Bringing implicit bias to consciousness would save the lives of more Black women and children during delivery and could go a long way toward reversing our nation’s embarrassing maternal mortality rate (along with improving the country’s health overall).
The Next Five Years
Two things are inevitable over the next five years. Both will challenge the practice of medicine like never before and each has the potential to transform American healthcare.
First, generative AI will provide patients with more options and greater control. Faced with the difficulty of finding an available doctor, patients will turn to chatbots for their physical and psychological problems.
Already, AI has been shown to be more accurate in diagnosing medical problems and even more empathetic than clinicians in responding to patient messages. The latest versions of generative AI are not ready to fulfill the most complex clinical roles, but they will be in five years when they are 30-times more powerful and capable.
Second, the retail giants (Amazon, CVS, Walmart) will play an ever-bigger role in care delivery. Each of these retailers has acquired primary care, pharmacy, IT and insurance capability and all appear focused on Medicare Advantage, the capitated option for people over the age of 65. Five years from now, they will be ready to provide the businesses that pay for the medical coverage of over 150 million Americans the same type of prepaid, value-based healthcare that currently isn’t available in nearly all parts of the country.
American healthcare can stop the current slide over the next five years if change begins now. I urge medical leaders and elected officials to lead the process by joining forces and implementing these highly effective, inexpensive approaches to rebuilding primary care, lowering medical costs, improving access and making healthcare more equitable. There’s no time to waste. The clock is ticking.