Greater Pittsburgh and the Counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania: Impact of FMRPs

Last Updated on April 16, 2022 by Lee Burnett, DO, FAAFP



Greater Pittsburgh and the Counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania

One of the most important policy issues facing the urban and rural counties that comprise Southwestern Pennsylvania area is the need to find better ways to assure that the area’s population has access to health care that is of high quality and is affordable.

Forty years ago the United States, through a partnership of the medical professions and the federal and state governments, established the family physician medical specialty and accredited three-year family medicine residency programs to train them.  Family physicians, with general internists and general pediatricians, are the physicians who provide primary health care in the United States.  Most persons who have a personal physician are in one of these primary care specialties.

Of the various physician specialties, family physicians are the most proportionately distributed to where the country’s population lives. Family physicians, unlike referral specialists, practice in most neighborhoods and communities.  Often the practices of one or more family physicians will be one of the major employers in a neighborhood.

The accredited entities that train family physicians are called family medicine residency programs. A physician training who is to become a board-certified family physician is called a family practice resident.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is fortunate to have ten such programs in the 12 counties surrounding Metropolitan Pittsburgh.  Five are in the city itself, four in hospitals associated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center [UPMC] and two in the West Penn Allegheny Hospital System.  Additionally, four programs are located at greater distances from the city, in Latrobe, Johnstown, Washington and Beaver.

The 10 programs collectively train about 68 new family physicians each year. At least 560 family physicians, currently practicing in Southwestern Pennsylvania, were trained in one of these 10 programs.

A distinctive feature of the training provided to family physicians is that, in addition to the hospital inpatient rotations that constitute the site of learning for most physician specialties, each family physician trains in a family medicine center, which provides care in an outpatient setting like a family doctor’s office.

Designed to give the family physician resident a three year experience in providing a full range of medical and health maintenance services to the same group of patients, family medicine centers are staffed by the residents, their supervising physicians, and other health professionals.

An important public policy objective is to encourage everyone to establish a “medical home”, in which all of a person’s medical information can be cared for by a single medical entity, including direct patient care, providing or obtaining diagnostic testing, referral to sub-specialists when needed, coordination of pharmaceutical prescriptions, and management of chronic conditions.

In the box to the right is a list of family medicine centers associated with family medicine centers in the counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania and a map showing their location.  In the aggregate they are providing the medical home for _____ patients.

Although each family medicine center provides a substantial percentage of care to populations covered by the private sector health insurance plans of working class families, the family medicine centers also are points of access to the community’s most vulnerable populations – the elderly, those on public assistance, the indigent and disabled.

Because the costs of health care have become increasingly difficult for many individuals and families to manage, persons in these vulnerable categories of patients often defer necessary health services until they become acutely ill.  The community at large benefits if such persons are encouraged to establish a medical home.   Each of the family medicine residency programs, either directly or working through their host hospitals, have processes for assisting patients in obtaining health care financial assistance for which they may be eligible.

The family medicine centers serve important community functions.  They provide ongoing care to persons with such chronic conditions as diabetes, cardiovascular and neurological diseases, severe asthma and behavioral disorders.  With ongoing, continuous care, most of these patients can be kept out of hospital emergency rooms, one of the most costly ways of providing health services. In the case of public assistance or uninsured patients, the financial impact of the community of avoidable emergency room use can be very high.

One of the functions of family medicine residency programs is to help patients determine when they need diagnostic tests or to be seen by sub-specialists.  The family medicine residency programs also have mechanisms in place to help most patients obtain the services they need.  In the case of public assistance or uninsured patients, these mechanisms prove invaluable, since many sub-specialists do not offer their services to persons without private sector health insurance.  Even insured patients may find it difficult to negotiate the health care system without such advocates for their health care as they might obtain in their medical home.

In fact, the ten Southwestern Pennsylvania family medicine residency programs constitute an important part of the area’s safety net for vulnerable populations, not only by providing care in its centers, but through the community health outreach activities that an essential element of family medicine residencies.

Each of the ten family medicine residency programs reports the ability to add patients at the present time.  At several sites, such as UPMC St Margaret family medicine residency, the programs have established or are participating in outreach activities to low-income neighborhoods to enroll Medicaid recipients and the medically uninsured.  The UPMC McKeesport program provides free care to married and unmarried women enrolled in its family planning program.

In some cases, the community outreach takes place through linkages with area community health centers, such as the Forbes Hospital’s Monroeville family medicine residency linkage with the Metro Family Practice in Wilkinburg or the UPMC St Margaret family medicine residency linkage with Pittsburg’s Lincoln-Lemmington Family Health Center.

A major concern for both the present and future health care policy is the relative lack of effort of training physicians for practice in rural communities.  Southwestern Pennsylvania is fortunate to have three family medicine residency programs – located in Johnstown, Washington and Beaver – with strong orientation towards rural practice and a significant record of training family physicians for such areas.

Because of the rapidly growing numbers of ethnic and linguistic minorities in our community, each of the residency programs has devoted considerable resources to  teach their residents competence in providing care to persons from diverse cultures, and in addressing care of non-English speaking patients.

All of the ten hospitals are non-profit hospitals with tax exemptions in exchange for their charitable projects and community service.  Among the important contributions these ten hospitals make to Southwestern Pennsylvania is providing, through their family medicine residency programs, the medical homes for many of the region’s most vulnerable populations.

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