Monday, March 27, 2017

Does family medicine training lead to high-value care?

The American Academy of Family Physicians this month celebrated the results of the 2017 Match, which saw a record 3,237 medical students and graduates fill first-year positions in family medicine residency programs. Although there is ample evidence that providing primary care improves population health, it is less clear how residency training specialty or location influences future health care quality and spending.

As Dr. Jennifer Middleton and I mentioned in prior posts, the AAFP was an early adopter of the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation's Choosing Wisely campaign against questionable or unnecessary medical interventions, but so far, studies have shown limited effects of the campaign in primary care. Since an estimated 30 percent of health care spending is wasted on unnecessary services, and a recent case study in JAMA suggested that "excessive resource utilization" may be considered an adverse event, it is worth studying if residency training spending patterns persist in clinical practice.

In a research paper in the Annals of Family Medicine, Dr. Robert L. Phillips, Jr. and colleagues at the American Board of Family Medicine and the Robert Graham Center analyzed spending patterns of a nationally representative sample of 3,075 family physicians and general internists who graduated from residency between 1992 and 2010 and who cared for a total of more than 500,000 Medicare patients. The physicians' residency program locations were matched with Hospital Service Areas (HSAs) and categorized by spending per patient into low-, average-, and high-cost groups. The researchers found that the "imprint" of residency training spending patterns persisted regardless of where physicians ended up providing primary care:

Physicians trained in high-cost HSAs spent significantly more per patient than those trained in low-cost HSAs, no matter what the spending category of the practice HSA. Averaged across all practice HSAs, this difference was $1,644. ... This relationship held true for family physicians and general internists in our multivariable analysis; general internists, however, made up two-thirds of sample physicians trained in high-cost HSAs, and family physicians made up two-thirds of those trained in low-cost HSAs. [Residency] graduates were significantly more likely to be low-cost physicians if their sponsoring institution produced fewer total physicians, more rural physicians, or more primary care physicians.


The researchers found no relationship between spending patterns and diabetes quality measures, suggesting that lower spending did not lead to worse health outcomes. And it is important to note that family physicians who trained in high-cost HSAs were as likely to be big health care spenders as general internists from high-cost programs; in other words, there did not appear to be anything inherent in family medicine training that caused graduates to spend less. However, more general internists provided costlier care by virtue of having trained in high-cost areas - most likely, those with tertiary academic medical centers. I agree with Dr. Phillips and colleagues' conclusion that their study "supports efforts to test interventions in residency training that may bend imprinting toward teaching and modeling behaviors that improve value in health care." One intervention has borne fruit for the past 8 years in a row: attracting more medical students to the specialty of family medicine.

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This post originally appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

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