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Pay for performance – more red tape without improved quality of care

We all agree that improving healthcare quality is a critical goal, but there is no real consensus on how to achieve that goal. In recent years, a “Pay for Performance” or P4P strategy has been put forth by the US government’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The gist of the strategy is to pay physicians more or less based on certain disease outcome measures of the patients they treat. So if a physician treats a large group of patients with diabetes, that physician would be paid more/office visits if, on average, those patients demonstrated lower blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol levels, and less evidence of end-organ damage on various tests.

P4P assumes that a patient’s chronic disease outcomes are completely dependent upon the physician. To me, this underlying assumption (that the patient is not involved in his/her own health) is offensive. It is offensive because it assumes that patients are not in control of their lifestyle choices, that their circumstances can be summed up by lab tests, and that their doctor takes all the credit for their hard work to control their disease. It also assumes that patients and families need not be partners in the quest for optimum health – no, that is solely the responsibility of the physician. Ultimately, P4P is disrespectful to patients – it takes them out of the health equation, it presumes that they’re passive participants, and it depersonalizes medicine.

And it gets worse. If physicians are paid more for patients who do well, they will be tempted to “cherry pick” the most motivated and privileged patients. How does this help the patients who need the most help? It will further earmark them for lower quality care.

One of my favorite bloggers, Dr. Richard Reece, echoes my sentiments, further explaining how ludicrous it is to assume that doctors are in full control of patient health outcomes:

People spend 99.9 percent of their time outside of doctors’ offices and hospitals. This time gap is particularly important in patients with chronic disease. Your outcomes depend on how and where you live and work…

Many patients don’t follow doctors’ orders. Many never fill prescriptions, fail to get refills and avoid exercise.

Half-way technologies–stents, coronary bypasses, joint replacements, statins, etc.–don’t eliminate underlying diseases or change their basic pathophysiology. The problem here, of course, is many patients have overblown expectations at what these technologies will accomplish and often return to the behavior that led to the problem in the first place.

Even CMS recognizes the limitations of P4P:

Pay-for-performance is in its early stages of development and a great deal of work still must be done to determine the best method of approaching a comprehensive program.

But that doesn’t stop them from promoting the program to states that are in desperate need of federal funds:

CMS will provide technical assistance to those states that voluntarily elect to implement pay-for-performance programs. We also plan to work with states to encourage that evolving pay-for-performance programs include an evaluation component to provide evidence of the effectiveness of this methodology.

For some further examples of how P4P doesn’t work, check out the following blogs: 1) disaster in the nursing home setting and 2) a summary of recent research studies on the ineffectiveness of P4P by Dr. Poses (via KevinMD).

Then what is the real issue that we’re trying to get at?

Quality care is dependent upon the regular application of evidence-based medicine (EBM) to clinical situations. What is EBM? Every medical decision that physicians make should have a good reason behind it – and that reason, whenever possible, should be based upon scientific evidence that the decision has worked in the past. What I mean is that we spend billions of dollars on medical research to learn the difference between truth and error, and doctors should do their level best to apply the research findings to the care decisions they make each day. Now, keep in mind that there are about 6000 research articles published each day in the medical journals world-wide… so it may come as no surprise that (as Dr. Reece explains):

It’s well-documented doctors only follow preventive and treatment guidelines 50 percent to 55 percent of the time. Moreover, doctors could do a much better job communicating with and educating patients, deploying the Internet (for example) to reach patients when they are outside of the immediate care setting.

So what we really need to do, is support physician education efforts to incorporate the very best research findings into their clinical practice of medicine. How can a physician keep up with all the latest research? I maintain that the government’s efforts would be better spent on hiring physician task forces (to summarize the very latest evidence for the treatment of every disease and condition – and then supply simplified guidelines to docs across the country) than on scheming up ways to penalize physicians for treating patients who are sicker and less willing or able to take control of their health. It would be great if physicians were incentivized to use the latest clinical guidelines in their care of patients – but basing the incentives on outcomes (rather than on applying the guidelines) cuts out the patient’s responsibility as a partner in the treatment. As Dr. Feld rightly points out, quality care based on EBM could be vastly improved through a central EMR.

And what can patients do?

In this new era of consumer directed healthcare, patients need to understand that they really are co-partners with their doctors. A doctor can give you all the best possible advice, but if you don’t take the advice, then that doctor’s work on your behalf may be in vain. I believe that patients should be aware of the care guidelines that doctors use to treat them – and have access to a simple check list to track their own progress. I am personally helping to translate clinical guidelines into consumer-friendly lists for patients so that they can actively participate in, and follow along with, their care plan (so stay tuned for that). Revolution Health is committed to empowering consumers – and helping them to be a full partner on the road to wellness. In fact, we are developing a full suite of su
pportive services (including health coaches, chronic disease management programs, insurance advocates, nurse call lines, physicians available via email, and more) that will make it much easier for them to stay on track. In addition, we are enabling physicians to customize educational information for their patients, and participate (via IT) in a broader relationship with them.

There are many exciting improvements in healthcare currently under development. The Internet will play a central role in connecting patients and physicians to the scientific information that will help them get the best care no matter where they are or which doctor they see. I don’t believe that P4P is anything more than another misguided attempt to “improve healthcare quality” by creating more of the red tape that keeps doctors and patients from meaningful personal interactions.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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One Response to “Pay for performance – more red tape without improved quality of care”

  1. StanleyFeldMD says:

    Great Entry. I love the Voice of Reason’s reasoning. It is common sense! Somehow policy makers have forgotten about Common Sense.

    I think the first thing they need to do is figure out the definition of quality. This is one more complicated mistake.

    Keep going!

    Stanley Feld M.D.,FACP,MACE

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