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New Doctor Considering Primary Care? Show Me The Money

There are plenty of reasons why medical students aren’t choosing primary care as careers. Lack of role models. Perception of professional dissatisfaction. High burnout rate among generalist doctors. Long, uncontrollable hours.

But what about salary? Until now, the wage disparity between primary care doctors and specialists has only been an assumed reason; the evidence was largely circumstantial. After all, the average medical school debt exceeds $160,000, so why not go into a specialty that pays several times more, with better hours?

Thanks to Robert Centor, there’s a study published in Medscape that shows how money affects career choice among medical students. Here’s what they found:

Sixty-six percent of students did not apply for a primary care residency. Of these, 30 percent would have applied for primary care if they had been given a median bonus of $27,500 before and after residency. Forty-one percent of students would have considered applying for primary care for a median military annual salary after residency of $175,000.

And in conclusion:

U.S. medical students, particularly those considering primary care but selecting controllable lifestyle specialties, are more likely to consider applying for a primary care specialty if provided a financial incentive.

Money matters. There should be no shame for new doctors to admit that. After all, they’re human too, and respond to financial incentives just like anyone else. And when most medical students graduate with mortgage-sized school loans, salary should be a factor when considering a career. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

Aggressive Care: When Is It Better For Patients?

The recurring narrative among health reformers is that hospitals that provide more care raise health costs, but don’t necessarily improve quality. This has lead to a backlash against so-called “aggressive” hospitals and doctors, with upcoming financial penalties to match. But the situation, as always, appears to be more nuanced than that.

In her column in the New York Times, Dr. Pauline Chen looks at one subset of patients who actually may benefit from aggressive care: Those who suffer surgical complications. The study,

found no difference in the rate of complications for aggressive and nonaggressive hospitals. But when they looked at all the patients who had complications and examined their outcomes, the researchers found that regardless of the urgency of their operations, those patients who were cared for at more aggressive hospitals were significantly more likely to survive their complications than those who had their operations at less aggressive hospitals.

In addition, the investigators found that characteristics associated with intensity of care treated surgical complications better:

… a hospital’s failure or success in treating surgical complications correlated consistently with factors that also characterized intensity of care — general expenditures, intensive care unit use and the total days of hospitalization — they found that benefits of this more aggressive care extended well beyond the time of the operation.

I constantly remind readers of this blog that more medicine isn’t necessarily better. The counter-intuitive findings from the Dartmouth Atlas study have been instructive in convincing patients that they are, in many cases, overtreated. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

In The ER With Abdominal Pain? Lower Your Diagnosis Expectations

Abdominal pain is the bane of many emergency physicians. Recently, I wrote how CT scans are on the rise in the ER. Much of those scans look for potential causes of abdominal pain.

In an essay from Time, Dr. Zachary Meisel discusses why abdominal pain, in his words, is the doctor’s “booby prize.” And when you consider that there are 7 million visits annually by people who report abdominal pain, that’s a lot of proverbial prizes.

One reason is the myriad of causes that lead bring a patient to the hospital clutching his abdomen. It can range from something as relatively benign as viral gastroenteritis where a patient be safely discharged home, to any number of “acute” abdominal problems necessitating surgery.

But more importantly, we need to consider how limited doctors actually are in the ER. Consider the ubiquitous CT scan, which is being ordered with increasing regularity:

The pros: CT scans are readily available, able to look at every organ in the abdomen and pelvis, and very good for ruling out many of the immediately life-threatening causes of belly pain. CT scans can also reduce the need for exploratory surgery. The cons: Often, CTs can’t diagnose the actual cause of ER patients’ abdominal pain. Worse, CTs deliver significant doses of radiation to a patient’s abdomen and pelvis (equivalent to between 100 and 250 chest X-rays). Over a lifetime, patients who receive two or three abdominal CT scans are exposed to more radiation than many Hiroshima survivors.

Add that to the fact that patients expect a definitive diagnosis when visiting the hospital — one that doctors can’t always give when it comes to abdominal pain. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

Integrating Major Health Systems Could Make Things Worse

Health reformers propose the proliferation of integrated health systems, like the Mayo Clinic or Kaiser Permanente, which, according to the Dartmouth Atlas, lead to better patient care and improved cost control.

To that end, accountable care organizations (ACOs) have been a major part of health reform, changing the way healthcare is delivered. Never mind that patients may not be receptive to the new model, but the creation of these large, integrated physician-hospital entities that progressive policy experts espouse comes with repercussions. Monopoly power.

To prepare for the new model of healthcare delivery, physician practices have been consolidating. In many cases, they’re being bought by hospitals. Last year, I wrote how this is leading to the death of the private practice physician.

But with consolidation comes a tilt in market power. Health insurers, desperate to control costs, are finding it more difficult to negotiate with hospital-physician practices that dominate a market. And patients are going to side with the hospital — insurers that leave out popular doctors and medical facilities face a backlash from patients. Witness the power that Partners Healthcare has in the Boston market that’s mostly driven by patient demand for big-reputation, high-cost Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

Why Female Physicians Make Less Money

Female doctors make less than male physicians. That conclusion gained major media traction recently. A recent post on KevinMD.com by medical student Emily Lu had some great conversation discussing reasons why women make less money in medicine.

To recap, the study from Health Affairs concluded that,

newly-trained physicians who are women are being paid significantly lower salaries than their male counterparts according to a new study. The authors identify an unexplained gender gap in starting salaries for physicians that has been growing steadily since 1999, increasing from a difference of $3,600 in 1999 to $16,819 in 2008. This gap exists even after accounting for gender differences in determinants of salary including medical specialty, hours worked, and practice type, say the authors.

Everyone hypothesized all sorts of reasons. Female doctors prefer more family-friendly hours and less call, which may impact their salary. Women are simply worse negotiators than men. Blatant sexism exists when hiring new physicians. Money isn’t as important to women as it is to men. All of which may, or may not, be true. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

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