Medical generalists tell a sad story. Their steadily declining numbers reflect a compensation system that still rewards specialists handsomely at generalists’ expense.
Even though the venerable relative value unit (RVU)-based reimbursement system was intended to equalize pay between primary care’s cognitive work and specialists’ procedure-driven high pay, it hasn’t. Since 1992, when Medicare started paying physicians using RVUs based on the resources used, the specialist-generalist gap remains. RVUs comprise three factors:
- Work (55%);
- Practice expense (42%); and
- Malpractice insurance (3%).
Arguably, generalist RVUs have risen and proceduralist RVUs have decreased. However, generalists argue this skewed pay scale still causes residents to shun internal medicine, hospital medicine, family practice, general pediatrics, and general surgery. Is that true?
Hospitalists and RVUs
Although RVUs don’t always figure into hospitalist compensation, they can have an effect. Vibhu Sharma, MD, of SUNY Downstate Medical Center’s section director, hospital medicine program, heads a 13-hospitalist group employed by the medical center and carries extensive teaching responsibilities.
RVUs don’t currently factor into his hospitalists’ pay but that’s becoming troublesome to Dr. Sharma. “We’d make a lot more money if RVUs were factored in, but they aren’t because we’re a teaching hospital,” he says. “Our group is only four years old, and we aren’t ready to push for it.”
Without the RVU productivity component, Dr. Sharma says he’s at a disadvantage when recruiting. Internal medicine, family practice, and other generalists “stuck with the perception that specialization is a better career option,” he says. “If payers paid us the same as non-invasive cardiologists there’d be a lot more hospitalists.”
Boosts in compensation will be slow in coming, says Dr. Sharma, because hospitalists have demonstrated only modest cost savings and LOS decreases. He adds: “Today nobody wants to be a hospitalist for the rest of their career. We perceive that the patient care we deliver isn’t well compensated, and that the RVU gap between generalists and sub-specialists can never be closed.” As for RVUs, he sees the hospital eventually adding an RVU bonus component. For now, it bumps up hospitalist salaries when the group complains.