Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Disparities in physician income are related to disparities in health

A major focus of public health, about which I have written several times, is addressing the disparities in health arising from modifiable conditions (such as inequality of opportunity, income, and racial and ethnic differences). While it is common for those with privilege – wealth, health, opportunity – to believe that they have these privileges because they are “deserving”, i.e., because of their hard work, education, etc., such an outlook minimizes the critically important fact that there are lots of people who work just as hard and have very little. The “illegal immigrant”, working 3 minimum (or sub-minimum) wage jobs to try to just keep his or her family fed and housed, is not only not lazy, but working a lot harder than many of us who are able to enjoy weekends off, play golf, watch the kids’ sporting events.

So it is clearly not hard work alone. It is very much influenced by where you start, and what your opportunities have been. These are the social determinants of health (e.g., Social Determinants, Personal Responsibility, and Health System Outcomes, September 12, 2010) and the capability that people have of acting in healthful ways (Capability: understanding why people may not adopt healthful behaviors, September 24, 2010). It is common for people who have a lot to minimize, rather than to emphasize, the degree to which their position at the start of the race has affected their current position. Attacks on those who would seek to redress some of the most egregious inequities are still couched in terms of “economic class warfare” by those who have already won the war. Those with privilege are very concerned about change that would leave them with less of a leg up; they may give lip service to Horatio Alger heroes, but are more likely to wish to follow the model of George W. Bush. “If you’ve spent your entire life with the wind at your back,” a wise sage once noted (and I do not know to whom to attribute it), “a calm day seems unfair”. In terms of health, the connections are very clear. It is good for your health to be born rich. The Horatio Alger hero, pulled up by their own bootstraps, has worse health outcomes than the child born to privilege.

Health disparities, then, are real and important. But why should we – should anyone – be concerned about the disparities in physician income? After all, even the more “poorly” paid specialists, in primary care, make far more than the average American. Yes, they have worked hard to get into and through medical school and residency training, but, just as noted above, so have a lot of other people who will never make nearly as much. The problem is that, if the presence of a larger number/percent of primary care physicians is associated with improvements in the health of the population, and if the presence of wide disparities in income significantly influence students to choose higher paid specialties instead, then these disparities in health status are likely to continue and the overall health of the American people is likely to suffer. There is good data on both counts. Many of the posts in this blog have addressed the first, the positive influence of primary care on the health of the population (e.g., Lower Costs in Grand Junction: More Primary Care, Less High Tech, October 18, 2010; Primary Care, IMGs, and the Health of the People, August 14, 2010; and many others) and on health disparities[1]. I have also addressed the other point, the decrease in the number of students choosing primary care careers (e.g., Primary care specialty choice: student characteristics, July 12, 2010; Primary Care’s Image: A Problem?, November 17, 2009, and others).

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine by Leigh, et. al, “Physician wages across specialties”[2], is the most recent effort to quantify the differences. They utilized the large Community Tracking Study (CTS) of physicians from 2004-2005 to gather information on physician income. They grouped the physician responses into 4 broad categories (surgical, internal medicine and pediatric subspecialties [IMPSS], primary care, and other) and again into 41 specific specialties. They went beyond previous studies to calculate gross personal income on an hourly basis (thus controlling for hours worked per week) and did further adjustments to control for other variables, principally sex and age. They used a statistical manipulation to estimate incomes above the maximum set for the CTS (for some reason set at $400,000, much lower than many subspecialists make).

The outcomes were not surprising in comparison to previously reported data. In the 4 broad-group comparisons, primary care physicians averaged about $60/hr compared to IMPSS at $85, other medical at $88, and surgical at $92. In the single specialty comparisons, General Surgery was taken as a reference being actually near the middle ($86/hr), with the top incomes in neurosurgery ($132), radiation oncology ($126), and medical oncology ($114). At the bottom were family practice, general practice, general internal medicine, geriatric medicine, internal medicine/pediatrics, and “other” pediatric subspecialties (whichever those may have been) with a range of $50-$58.

There are several reasons to think that differences are, in fact, greater than those reported. There was only a 53% response rate to the CTS, and so we do not know if non-respondents made more, less or the same as respondents. “Hospital-based” specialties, specifically anesthesiology and radiology, which are among the highest-paid, were excluded. Other high-end specialties, such as cardiovascular surgery or transplant surgery, do not appear as specific specialties, and may have their incomes hidden when grouped with “thoracic surgery” or “other surgical specialties”. There are many sources of income for many physicians, including a variety of expenses that can be paid by practices and which would presumably be greater for higher income practices. Many highly-paid specialties are paid by hospitals directly (such as anesthesiology and radiology) or through “physician service agreements”. The correction used by the authors of the study for incomes over $400,000 could have been inadequate; certainly anecdotal experience in many locations would suggest that considering $400,000 as a reasonable top end for the highest paid physicians would understate that by at least half.
Nonetheless, the income differences, even in 2004-05, were impressive. Given the debt load that medical students (particularly those, obviously, from the less wealthy families) graduate with, the significant attraction to higher pay is clear.

The Wall St Journal, in two recent articles (“Secrets of the system”) published October 26, 2010, looked at the Relative Value Update Committee (RUC), a group of 29 physicians convened by the AMA from different specialty organizations that make recommendations to Medicare on how to pay physicians for their, well, relative value. One, “Physician panel prescribes the fees paid by Medicare” by Anna Wilde Matthews and Tom McGinty, describes how this group meets to divide up a pie that Medicare seeks to keep constant. In the other, “Dividing the Medicare pie pits doctor against doctor”, Matthews discusses the contentiousness that happened when primary care physicians (greatly outnumbered) challenged their surgical colleagues to get a higher portion of the money (that is, to revalue activities done by primary care physicians relative to surgical specialists).

In the same issue of Archives of Internal Medicine that Leigh’s article appeared in, Federman and colleagues[3] surveyed physicians about whether they thought reimbursements were inequitable or not; 78.4% agreed that they are, with not that much difference between generalists and subspecialists. However, when the idea of shifting payments from subspecialists to generalists was raised, there was a marked difference; 66.5% of generalists supported this, while only 16.6% of surgeons did; overall 41.6% were supportive and 46.4% were opposed. That is, for most specialists, paying generalists more is ok, but paying themselves less is not.

The WSJ‘s Matthews quotes an email from Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) saying that the Medicare agency is moving to “improve Medicare's physician systems to correct historical biases against primary-care professionals." That needs to happen. The changes need to be dramatic. And they need to happen soon.

[1] Shi L, Macinko J, Starfield B, Xu J, Regan J, Politzer R and Wulu J, “Primary care, infant mortality, and low birthweight in the states of the USA”,J Epidemiol Community Health 2004;58;374-380
[2] Leigh JP, Tancredi D, Jerant A, Kravitz RL, “Physican wages across specialties: informing the physician reimbursement debate, Arch Int Med 25Oct2010; 170(19):1728-34.
[3] Federman AD, Woodward M, Keyhani S, “Physicians’ opinions about reforming reimbursement: results of a national survey”, Arch Int Med, 25Oct2010;170(19):1735-42.

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