I know the healthcare community is struggling with the question of time because I spent the better part of the past year facilitating a highly structured, rigorous conversation about this daunting primary-care challenge among more than 100 of the most respected and inventive doctors, nurses, community workers, entrepreneurs, insurance executives, luminaries, and health policy experts in the country. We convened the group to formulate recommendations on what the healthcare system should do to address the challenge.

The ideas were drawn from provocative real-life examples of innovation in primary care, small and large, already taking place all over the country. They include advancing Race to the Top-style programs to incentivize innovations at the state level, leveraging the nation’s community colleges and vocational schools to prepare front line health workers, and getting students through medical school faster. The recommendations call for new ways to bring healthcare to the people rather than requiring people to come to care, making the interaction between provider and patient far more dynamic and rich with personalized data. They call for keeping complex diagnoses with doctors while getting creative with everything else. And they call for reducing the overall demand for care by increasing personal accountability and addressing root causes of poor health.

The experts my organization convened agreed on one thing. In order to successfully provide quality healthcare to a rapidly growing, rapidly diversifying U.S. population, we need to philosophically, fundamentally, and structurally shift the emphasis of healthcare away from expensive, later-stage treatment to prevention, wellness and earlier detection.

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The fact is today’s primary care system does not deliver good value for the dollar. It is fragmented, under-resourced, constrained by conventional and often outdated thinking, and alarmingly ill equipped to meet the complex societal demands about to be hoisted upon it.

Yet there is broad agreement that because of the number of people that primary care has the capacity to touch, it is the most powerful lever to cut costs while dramatically improving health outcomes. For instance, data shows that when primary care physician density increases, hospital admissions for conditions that can be managed in an outpatient setting decrease.
Time is not on our side. Waiting on the outcome of this year’s healthcare reform is not going to solve the problem. It is time to turn the trademark heterogeneity of the U.S. healthcare system into an asset, a hotbed of innovation for not only burgeoning areas like biotechnology and medical devices, but primary care as well. It’s up to payers, medical schools, foundations, hospitals, providers and every other stakeholder in the healthcare system to commit to innovation in primary care now. And it’s up to state and federal governments to incentivize innovation to bring cost-saving changes to life.

Monique Nadeau is president and CEO of the Hope Street Group, a nonpartisan 501(c)3 organization that convenes business, political and civic leaders to creatively address policy issues that have direct impact on individual economic opportunity, particularly issues on which consensus otherwise proves elusive. The new report entitled "Policy 2.0: Using Open Innovation to Reinvent Primary Care" can be found here.