HMS Opens New Primary Care Facility

Harvard Medical School has opened a new Center for Primary Care using funds from a $30 million anonymous donation gifted specifically to improve the quality of primary care training.

HMS instructor and co-director for the center Andrew L. Ellner ’97 defines primary care as the first contact a patient has with the health care system. The term also includes the doctors who provide long-term care to patients.

“In contrast to a specialist who focuses on an organ, a primary care physician studies the whole body system and develops a relationship with the patient,” Ellner said.

The new center looks to fix what both Ellner and center co-director and HMS professor Russell S. Phillips call the “crisis in health care.”

“We spend too much and get too little,” said Ellner.

According to Ellner, there have been many improvements in biomedical research, but little improvement in the health care system. Additionally, there is a shortage of primary care physicians because few students choose to study primary care, Phillips said.

“[Primary care] should be a team-based effort but that’s not the case,” he said.

He mentioned that a lack of support from other doctors, nurses, specialists, and hospital workers can push primary care physicians to work longer hours to provide adequate care while being compensated less than their peers in other fields of medicine.

Phillips identified two types of medicine—cognitive work and procedural work. Work by primary care physicians is deemed cognitive work, but procedural work receives better compensation. The lower compensation deters many students from studying to become primary care physicians.

“We want to raise excitement for primary care among the students. It hasn’t been the sexiest of choices, but it is one of the most important,” said Ellner.

Phillips mentioned that “a strong base of primary care is critical for our country. States with better primary care have higher quality of care and lower costs.”

Ellner said that students sometimes feel that primary care is not where the intelligent doctors go.

“We need our best and brightest to work [in primary care,” he added.

Ellner hopes the center can improve medical education by teaching students to work in teams and to work with the body as a system rather than focusing on individual diseases. Ellner hopes the center can improve medical education by teaching students to work in teams and to work with the body as a system rather than focusing on individual diseases.

—Staff writer Armaghan N. Behlum can be reached at behlum@college.harvard.edu.

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