Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How do family physicians provide cost-effective care?

- Kenny Lin, MD

Research studies have documented strong associations between U.S. primary care physician supply, better population health outcomes, and lower health care spending. Among adult primary care specialties, national survey data suggest that family physicians provide more cost-effective care. However, little research has examined how family physicians provide effective care at lower cost than other physicians. Is it because we are more likely to follow evidence-based guidelines? Order fewer inappropriate imaging tests? Are less likely to offer non-beneficial tests and treatments?

In the May issue of Family Medicine, Dr. Richard Young and colleagues reported a qualitative analysis of interviews with 38 Texas family physicians about decision-making practices that may contribute to delivery of cost-effective care. Participants provided examples of experiences that they felt exemplified differences in the ways they approached patients compared to approaches of less cost-effective specialists. Two major themes emerged from these interviews: 1) cost-effective care is an inherent value in family medicine; 2) knowledge of the whole patient through continuous relationships enabled efficient decision-making.

Family physicians in this study emphasized the importance of the history and physical examination, conservative testing strategies in low-risk patients, being comfortable with managing complexity, and assigning less importance to "making the diagnosis" than relieving patients' symptoms. Physicians were also attuned to potential behavioral causes of physical symptoms and placed considerable weight on financial and medical harms that could result from aggressive care.

As the authors point out, these findings are limited by the relatively small number of participants, who may or may not represent the general attitudes of family physicians in other areas of the U.S. Do you think that Dr. Young and colleagues identified all of the important ways that family physicians provide cost-effective care? If not, what other factors would you add from your own patient care experiences?