Medical Health concept When askedto list the top factors in why they chose their health careprovider, the No. #1 answer was “covered by insurance,” at 61percent, followed by “good quality of care,” at 54 percent. (Image:Chris Nicholls/ALM)

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A new study looks at the future of the primarycare physician, in a time when market changes and consumer preferences are creating new optionsfor patients.

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The report, by consulting firm WD Partners, notes that primary care physicians (PCPs) have been thetraditional provider for health care for most Americans—but thatreality has been changing. Clinicians such as physician assistantsand nurse practitioners have become trusted providers for manypatients. More recently, urgent care clinics, retail clinics, andvirtual health care services have grown in popularity, especiallyfor younger consumers, who put a premium on convenience.

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Related: Where do benefits brokers fit in Amazon's newhealth care venture?

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In addition, provider shortages have long been a subject ofconcern. The study estimates that the U.S. will face a shortage of50,000 primary care physicians in the next decade.

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Quality, but also practicality

The study surveyed 2,600 health care consumers in the U.S. Thefindings suggested that consumers valued the relationship they havewith providers, but that there were practical factors that rankedhigh as well.

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When asked to list the top factors in why they chose theirhealth care provider, the No. #1 answer was “covered by insurance,” at 61 percent, followedby “good quality of care,” at 54 percent. “Health careprofessionals I am familiar with” and “professionals I trust”ranked third and fourth for why providers were chosen, at 53percent and 52 percent, respectively. “Convenient location” roundedout the top five, at 39 percent.

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For the type of facility they preferred, the majority were againmore traditional: 85 percent chose a primary care clinic for carein the last six months. But 42 percent also listed an urgent care clinic as a place they went to forcare, 27 had been to a hospital emergency room, 18 percent had beento a retail clinic, and 5 percent listed a health care service thatdelivers services to consumers' homes.

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The study finds those numbers significant, when looking at thecontext of available options.

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“Currently, there are only 7,600 urgent care clinics and lessthan half that – only 3,000 – retail clinics,” the report said. “Soit's not surprising that only a little more than a quarter ofrespondents actually visited an urgent care in the last six months.Given the small number of urgent cares available to millions ofhealth care consumers, this number shows growing interest in urgentcare as a serious PCP alternative.” The same dynamic is in play forretail clinics, the report added, but questions about quality ofcare has been a drag on retail health care's reputation.

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Younger Americans seek convenience

The report underlined what other studies have shown: youngerconsumers put a high value on convenience. Overall, the study foundyounger generations had lower levels of satisfaction with thecurrent health care system (Gen Z was at 44 percent reporting highsatisfaction, millennials were at 45 percent), while boomers (73percent) and the silent generation (79 percent) were much morelikely to report being highly satisfied with traditional PCParrangements.

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In addition, younger generations were more likely to say speedof delivery and convenience were important features of care, oldergenerations listed quality and insurance coverage as the mostimportant factors. Younger patients were also much more interestedin virtual care: when asked if they would prefer care delivered tothem at home via phone, computer, or devices, only 9 percent of thesilent generation agreed or strongly agreed; 40 percent of Gen Zand millennials agreed or strongly agreed.

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“The younger [the patients] are, the more likely that theyhaven't established a PCP, or if they have, they may have changeddoctors due to moves and employment-related work changes,” thereport said. “Again, logic dictates that for younger patients,familiarity and history wouldn't matter as much—making space forless familiar alternatives that can better meet their needs forconvenience.”

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A blend of approaches

The WD report explores consumer attitudes about changes in caredelivery in depth, and it concludes that the future of health carewill be a blend of approaches, depending on consumer demand.Primary care clinics and their physicians, the study said, “… Mustconsider fundamental changes in order to satisfy the needs anddesires of younger consumers, which differ dramatically from PCPs'largely happy older patients.”

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“Urgent care facilities have a great deal of potential to buildon their 'middle ground'—that is, they are perceived as providingconvenience and efficiency without as much of the quality-of-caresacrifice that is currently hurting the reputation of retailclinics,” the report added.

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