Family physicians are leading the way in transforming the U.S. healthcare system, said Reid Blackwelder, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) during the opening session of the organization's Scientific Assembly in San Diego on Sept. 25.
"It's an incredibly exciting time for us as family physicians, because people are talking about us. From the White House to the state houses, people are pushing primary care," said Blackwelder (pictured), a family physician who practices in Kingsport, Tenn.
He acknowledged the challenges faced by practices as they adopt EHRs and transition to evolving care models, such as patient-centered medical homes (PCMHs). "There's no art in the acronyms; the processes are not pretty," he observed
However, he noted, "We have demanded that payers begin to recognize our value, and that's finally happening. Family physicians are leading the way. We're adapting our practices to be more effective patient-centered medical homes. We're learning to work smarter, and not harder."
Blackwelder recalled his two-and-a half-year experience as the only physician in Trenton, Ga., a town of 1,400. "I was thrown into an isolated practice where I was basically just working harder. I wasn't sure I was that smart, but I hung in," he explained. "I added things to my practice. I looked to see what else was around and I realized that in Trenton, in addition to my office, there was also a health department, a pharmacy, a physical therapy office, two chiropractors and an EMS station.
"We did the best we could because it was the right thing to do. We didn't know it, but we were really kind of wanting to be a patient-centered medical home," he continued. "Now each of us is learning to take the meaningful steps to move forward…the ability to provide for our patients better outcomes, better health and at less cost -- the triple aim."
Blackwelder also emphasized family physicians' unique and comprehensive training that prepares them to deliver "cradle-to-grave" care for patients. "We don't have to discriminate based on gender, age, body part, disease, organ system, location in the hospital," he said. "There is no one else like us. We cannot be replaced. We're what the country needs."
He added that family physicians tend to be comfortable with uncertainty, "and that's a really good [trait] to have right now…We have payment reform, health information technology, ACOs, ICD-10. Can we maintain primary care gains from the Affordable Care Act? Can we keep our doors open?"
In response to those rhetorical questions, Blackwelder urged attendees to think back to why they decided to go into medicine -- to help people.
"Sometimes we forget the kind of impact we make," he said. "The days are frustrating; we go home and we vent. But, please, afterwards, remember at the end of the day that person for whom you made a difference in their life."
In wrapping up his remarks, Blackwelder reiterated that family physicians will have an essential role in the future of healthcare. He called for clearer definition of that role as "the constant in this transformation" of the system.
"We know what needs to be done. We are about making the system truly one about health, and truly one that's caring. We have real voices and we also carry others with us," he concluded.