Monday, April 9, 2012

Counterintuitive findings on quality incentives and patient satisfaction

They've been repeated so often that many health care quality gurus take them for granted: 1) paying physicians for performance will improve quality of care; 2) increasing patient satisfaction will reduce care costs and improve outcomes.

Not necessarily, two recent studies suggest.

A Cochrane for Clinicians piece on financial incentives for improving the quality of care in the April 1st issue of AFP concludes that despite their increasing popularity, there is actually "limited evidence" that pay-for-performance models are successful in primary care practice. When positive effects were seen in the studies examined in the Cochrane review, they were disappointingly modest. Further, writes Dr. Elizabeth Salisbury-Afshar, "In addition to costs, potential harms must be considered. For example, if financial incentives are provided only for certain health indicators, physicians may spend more time focusing on meeting those indicators while paying less attention to other important components of care." This commentary elicited several online comments from AFP readers, ranging from a defense of the "tried and true" fee-for-service model to requests for better tools and systems to allow physicians to improve care quality without making unsustainable demands on their time.

In a similar vein, a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that although higher patient satisfaction was associated with lower rates of emergency department use, it also was linked to several less desirable outcomes, including higher odds of any inpatient admission, greater total and prescription drug costs, and higher mortality. Is it possible, questions Dr. Brenda Sirovich an accompanying editorial, that patient satisfaction is driven by receiving more care, but not better care? She goes on to observe:

Practicing physicians have learned ... that they will be rewarded for excess and penalized if they risk not doing enough. More aggressive practice, therefore, improves not only patients' perceived outcomes, but also those of physicians (reimbursement, performance ratings, protection against lawsuits), and the positive feedback loop of health care utilization is fueled at two ends. ... A positive feedback system is not in fact positive (ie, favorable)—it represents an unstable system, one that cannot control its own growth, or demise. We, as a profession and as a society, can take responsibility for controlling this unrestrained system only if we commit to overcoming the widespread misconception that more care is necessarily better care, and to realigning the incentives that help nurture this belief.