I recently sat in a virtual primary care leadership meeting with probably 40 people attending. (There were too many little Zoom boxes to count.)
I watched a PowerPoint presentation in which a table outlining what primary care clinicians do was shared. The people presenting had boiled down “primary care provider clinical activity” to things that could be counted: individual direct clinic sessions, consults for things that I consider to be specialty care that live in our primary care clinics (but that is another story), time spent reviewing charts, participating in huddles, typing notes, answering portal messages, etc. This list of activities was intended to account for “providers’” productivity to help leaders in our system understand, value, and account for the work our clinicians do.
To me, primary care is a function that is at the foundation of peoples’ personal health and the health of our communities. By the end of the presentation, with its accounting list, my heart was aching.
Primary Care and the Personal Clinician
The function of primary care is to provide whole-person care. Primary care clinicians are generalists who address the majority of people’s health needs throughout their lifespan, not just for a set of specific diseases. The function of primary care is to ensure people receive comprehensive care: prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, pre- and post-natal care, including the birth of babies, as well as end-of-life care.
This function is inseparable from the function of a personal clinician who is also a generalist. A personal clinician has a committed trusting relationship with patients. It is in the context of a patient’s relationship with a personal clinician, preferably over the course of a lifespan, that whole person, comprehensive care health care is realized. As described by T.F. Fox in 1960:
A person in difficulties wants in the first place the help of another person on whom [they] can rely as a friend—someone with knowledge of what is feasible but also with good judgment on what is desirable in the particular circumstances, and an understanding of what the circumstances are. The more complex medicine becomes, the stronger are the reasons why everyone should have a personal doctor who will take continuous responsibility for [them], and, knowing how [they] live, will keep things in proportion—protecting [them], if need be, from the zealous specialist. The personal doctor is of no use unless [they] are good enough to justify [their] independent status. An irreplaceable attribute of personal physicians is the feeling of warm personal regard and concern of doctor for patient, the feeling that the doctor treats people, not illnesses, and wants to help [their] patients not because of the interesting medical problems they may present but because they are human beings in need of help.1
From Accounting to Accountability
I spoke up in the meeting to explain how I was feeling in response to the accounting list devoid of the foundational functions of both primary care and the personal primary care clinician. My comments, while eventually appreciated, were initially dismissed as “qualitative” wh(ich was the ideal way to dismiss me, a qualitative researcher).
The system in which I work is not the only one where primary care clinicians are being pushed toward accounting for what they do. But what is needed instead is a focus on clinician accountability to the people and communities they care for as healers. I stole the title of this blog post from someone I greatly admire, Carlos Jaen, who recently made a similar point about this on a national listserv.
This suggests to me that my system and the clinicians I work with are not alone in struggling with accounting versus accountability. But why was I – the non-clinician in the virtual room – the only one who spoke up? Why did I watch as my clinician colleagues put additional countable items in the chat? How do we help our primary care clinician leaders, who I respect and value greatly, shift their way of seeing and thinking about their work so that they can lead our health systems in a new direction, one that moves away from accounting and toward accountability and responsibility?
1. Fox TF. The personal doctor and his relation to the hospital. Observations and reflections on some American experiments in general practice by groups. Lancet. 1960 Apr 2;1(7127):743-60.
My wife and I live in a community in the midst of 700 acres of prairie and a hundred-acre organic farm. The founders designed it thirty-five years ago to be a conservation community with a fixed number of houses. Nothing has been built since 1995. Someone from a neighboring community asked my wife if we live in “the place where no one cuts their lawns.” Yes, that’s us. Our lawn is small and our yard has lots of prairie, full of flowers and grasses which go from our yard, over hills, and down into a lake.
Every spring and fall, cadres of community members join to burn the prairie. Seeing six-foot grasses and flowers burn over hundreds of acres with people walking along with water tanks on their backs and wet brooms to keep it under control is extraordinary. Science and tradition know that burning helps seed dispersal, helps native plants get a head start next year, and rids the prairie of debris and invasive species, enabling early stronger growth of natives. Fire opens the landscape to grass and flowers, and its ashes nurture plants in the future. Every few years, after a burn, a newly grown, stronger prairie is subjected to wind, rain, snow and sun.
Graduate education in family medicine, like a neglected and unburned prairie, has the potential to get overgrown and tangled up, losing the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Residency education could use a good burn.
Without it, sticking new plants into already packed soil or hoping that old ideas that need revival will suddenly thrive is hopeless. Healthy prairies are harbingers of a changing environment. Education should be as well. But without periodic burns, they both will deteriorate.
Having a bonfire of residency documents is not what I am suggesting, although many people I know would welcome such an event. We need intellectual fires to weed, promote growth, and diversify.
Creating an Academic Prairie Fire
Every 5 years, every residency program in the country should set an Academic Prairie Fire. Make it a celebration of renewal.
Then light the match and begin the renewal. Don’t tweak things, burn them.
Renewing a residency program every five years should regrow necessary core training while weeding out non-native plants, i.e., those that don't serve family medicine's basic principles, and seeding the ground with new adaptable ideas for environmental changes in education. If curriculum is essential to what family physicians will be doing in ten years, it stays; if not, other curriculum replaces it.
For example, decades of dealing with addiction disorders requires more creativity and time from education than simply learning how to prescribe suboxone.  Before the pandemic, virtual care was a small part of practice, patient care at home and communities was discouraged, and public health partnerships were few and far between. Now those ideas are essential to the future roles for family doctors in practice. But squeezing new curriculum between hospital and specialty rotations probably won’t work.
Renewal of Faculty and Curriculum
Faculty members need renewal as well. The tradition of sabbatical was intended to permit faculty members to spend time away and come back with new ideas for courses, research, or teaching. Sabbaticals in medical schools are rare and primarily taken by senior faculty members.  But achieving the competence and creativity to be an effective teacher in new structure with new content requires more than a weekend workshop.
A post-Academic Prairie Fire residency program will require faculty members with new attitudes and who are eager to teach new material in new ways. With time and space, new ideas can thrive. Renewal guards against stale teachers and stale ideas. Many will focus on the risks involved in radical renewal, advocating for stability and measured change. But fifty years of measured change have left the discipline with decreasing interest from medical students and exhausted clinicians and educators.
Finally, an Academic Prairie Fire will push the renewal of education where medicine is practiced. The need for adaptability both of curriculum and teachers has never been more important. But, as Jason wrote: “Many of us are inclined to put our trust in practices that have been done for a long time, seldom asking if there was a sound rationale for starting them in the first place. Resistance to recommended changes is common in human institutions.” Change will not be easy. Dropping aspects of current curriculum that do not represent what family doctors will be doing in five years will take courage, commitment and resistance to forces of standardization.
The central goal of residency education is to become a good doctor, of course, but also to become a better and more skilled doctor who understands and embraces change in society and uses it to improve health. Family medicine residency education should create working relationships with community services, public health, and school systems, analyze the morbidity and mortality statistics from the community and respond to their needs, and partner to create programs to address them. Social isolation, disaffected young people, drug use, unsafe schools, isolated elderly, disabilities, and mental health issues can’t just be add-ons. Physicians will need to leave the comfort of hospitals and clinics and go into schools, workplaces and become advocates for marginalized people of all types.
All this will take time. The discipline needs to demand the time to reflect and change – to recover from the fire – by taking control of residency education so that innovation, creativity and renewal of teachers and curriculum can take place and be evaluated appropriately.
Prairies and wild lands will not disappear but are constantly threatened. Their health in great part depends on principles of conservation and renewal. Healthy environments stay healthy through adaptation, not stagnation, just as intellectual diversity depends on creative destruction that allows persistence of core ideas while letting new ideas bloom.
A regular Academic Prairie Fire would be a wonder to behold and a time of real excitement. Renewal would energize teachers, create a true learning community and focus on innovation both in education and clinical care. Renewal would also assure that family medicine education would be of its time and place, not trapped in its past.
Ratcliffe H, Ahlering M, Carlson D, Vacek S, Allstadt A, Dee LE. Invasive species do not exploit early growing seasons in burned tallgrass prairies. Ecol Appl. 2022;32(7):e2641.
Murray SA, Tapson J, Turnbull L, McCallum J, Little A. Listening to local voices: adapting rapid appraisal to assess health and social needs in general practice. BMJ (Clinical research ed). 1994;308(6930):698-700.
Loxterkamp D. Helping 'them': our role in recovery from opioid dependence. Annals of Family Medicine. 2006;4(2):168-171.
Robiner WN, Buum HT, Eckerstorfer M, Kim MH, Kirsch JD. Sabbaticals in US Medical Schools. The American Journal of Medicine. 2023;136(3):322-328.
Jason H. Future medical education: Preparing, priorities, possibilities. Medical Teacher. 2018;40(10):996-1003.
Newton W, Fetter G, Hoekzema GS, Hughes L, Magill M. Residency Learning Networks: Why and How. Annals of Family Medicine. 2022;20(5):492-494.
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