I sat at home with a sense of relief. I had just finished my first month of residency – a grueling inpatient hospital month where I was pushed to new limits.
I now finally had my first “golden weekend” (meaning I had both Saturday and Sunday off). More importantly, I had survived my first month without any patient deaths on my service. Given how sick people are when they come to the hospital, I felt pretty good about this result.
That feeling lasted less than 24 hours.
As I logged in from home onto the electronic medical record to finish some documentation, I realized one of my patients was in a coma due to a sudden stroke. This patient had few clinical symptoms and appeared the healthiest amongst all the patients I managed the entire month. A heavy knot quickly developed in my stomach, as I could not shed the feeling that perhaps I did something wrong. I scoured the medical records, retracing my management. Over the next couple of days I discussed the case with other colleagues and experts in the field, and read in depth on the management of this condition. To my relief it was clear that I did not nor did anyone involved in the patient’s care make an error in management. Unfortunately, however, this patient eventually passed away.
As I reflect on the experience, an important point stands out in my mind. This patient exhibited few signs of being “sick” and was managed very well by all the physicians during the course of the hospital stay, but died. On the other end of the spectrum are patients who appear incredibly sick, and despite a poor prognosis survive against odds. One of the goals of residency is to learn to assess a patient and quickly identify who is in imminent danger and may need immediate attention. Unfortunately, however, physicians cannot predict everything, as situations similar to the one above are not uncommon scenarios. Given this fact it makes the discussion about measuring healthcare and pay for performance very cloudy.
Measuring the success of an organization or individual is critical in any field. For some industries or organizations this is a relatively simple process. For example, most private companies in for-profit industries measure their success on profit and increasing shareholder value (though this is becoming more complicated as there has been an increasing number of debates on accountability and the role of business). Measuring success in any public service or non-profit industry where profit is not the main driver is much more challenging. Healthcare measurement is even more complex because there is so much unpredictability in healthcare outcomes.
Despite the difficulty in measuring health outcomes, it is important that we continue to try to find appropriate yardsticks for measurement. The world renowned economist and father of modern strategy, Michael Porter, has dedicated a significant portion of his time to healthcare lately. He believes that while Healthcare costs are important, there has been too much of a preoccupation on costs instead of driving and improving outcomes. Porter and many others point to the improvement in organ transplant outcomes across the entire nation after measuring outcomes were initiated.
Outcomes and processes are two important indicators often used when one thinks of measuring physician performance. These terms are also used in a slightly different manner to measure health organization performance, but I’ll specifically focus on the physician measurement aspect in this discussion. While I agree whole-heartedly with the importance of measuring health outcomes, I disagree with the idea of tying physician performance and payments too tightly to health outcomes of patients.
Analyzing the patient I mentioned above illustrates that too often a patient’s outcome is not determined by the physician’s actions alone. While physicians play a key role in patients’ health, factors such as patient compliance, genetics, access to transportation, eating habits, education, stress, access to ancillary services, and exercise lifestyle play roles. Ultimately, it is the social determinants of health that will impact the patient’s health outcomes. Even the delivery of purely medical care itself is a team process: doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, physical therapy and so on all coordinate medical care.
Physicians have far less control over one’s health than most people perceive. You could put the greatest clinician in the world in the worst system and conditions, and I can almost guarantee the health outcomes of his/her patients will be sub par. For any Detroit Lions football fans who followed Barry Sanders throughout the 1990s, you know exactly what happens when you have a star performer in a below average system. Contrary to what most people think, we need to learn how to find a way of measuring physician performance independent of the patient’s outcomes.
While processes may not be the ideal way to measure physician performance, it does serve some utility. We are simply not at the point where a doctor can guarantee a patient will have their diabetes controlled. What we can do is assure that the doctor’s actions are appropriate – that they check the Hemoglobin A1c regularly, educate the patient, check renal function, inspect the feet and eyes, manage medication appropriately, etc. Measuring processes is often criticized, but this is in fact how most employees in most industries are paid – pay primarily for the employee’s direct actions (process) and a bonus for the success of the organization or final product (outcome). The percentage of that bonus is dependent on the opportunity for the employee to influence the outcome. For instance, some organizations such as those in the fast food industry probably do not want to have too high a company bonus for its employees doing straightforward tasks since they have a relatively small influence on the bottom line, however, a senior VP at a small startup probably may have a large bonus tied to the performance of the organization. The bonus must be commensurate to the potential to influence.
I am not arguing against measurement of physician performance. The point is that if we measure we need to be cautious in what we measure. We need think deeply about what performance really is, understand the differences in processes and outcomes, and ultimately be sure to find meaningful metrics. Many organizations have prematurely tied outcomes too tightly to the performance of physicians. In some medical scenarios where there is an exact formula for success (which is rare in medicine) this reimbursement formula may work, but on the aggregate it doesn’t. The ultimate goal of a doctor is to make the patient healthy, and thus having a small bonus for doctors tied to health outcomes may yield a healthy and aligned incentive structure.
However, once that bonus grows too large it begins to affect the entire morale of physicians. You end up with a frustrated population of physicians who become upset by the fact that they are measured and reimbursed by things beyond their control. I have long supported the idea that the culture of medicine is one that resists change; however, in this case I think the resistance by physicians to many of the pay-per-performance schemes arising is somewhat justified. Most doctors would love to be in a position where they can guarantee the health of their patient. I plan to spend much of my time dedicated to underserved patients with many barriers to improved health, and thus I would love if there were a full-proof formula to assure my patients’ health. At that point I would certainly welcome an incentive system that reimbursed me for patient outcomes. But until then, I’d prefer to not to bind my hard earned dollar to results that I have minimal control over.
I would rather gamble and take my money to Vegas.
Vipan Nikore is an internal medicine resident physician and the President and Founder of the youth leadership non-profit Urban Future Leaders of the World (uFLOW).
Submit a guest post and be heard on social media’s leading physician voice.