From the Journals

As patients, physicians fare nearly the same as everyone else



For patients, including patients who are physicians, knowledge isn’t power, according to investigators.

A doctor holds a bottle of pills megaflopp/Thinkstock

A literature review and retrospective analysis of more than 35,000 physicians treated as patients revealed minimal associations between level of medical knowledge and quality of health outcomes, reported Michael D. Frakes, PhD, of Duke University, Durham, N.C., and colleagues. The study findings stand in opposition to the “widely prevailing view” that information and medical knowledge among patients are integral to realizing high-quality, low-cost health care, the investigators noted.

“[This] research is particularly relevant to modern discussions and debates about the consumer-driven health care movement and the use of plans with high deductibles and high copayments to encourage greater patient and consumer involvement in health care decision making,” Dr. Frakes said in an interview. “Recent research has suggested that the financial incentives created by such structures discourage the use of both low-value care and high-value care. Some have argued that greater disclosure of information to patients may address this concern and steer patients towards high-value decisions. Our results cast doubt on the potential for information initiatives alone to meet this aim.”

The study is one of the first of its kind, the investigators noted in the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. Other than a 2016 publication that found that physician mothers were less likely to have cesarean sections (Am Econ J: Econ Policy. 2016;8[1]:115-41), “there is no work which has been able to study the role of physicians as patients,” they wrote.

To fill this gap, the investigators turned to a unique data source: The Military Health System, which provides insurance to active and retired military personnel and their families. Military Health System spending exceeds $50 billion per year, constituting a major portion of American health care expenditures, and with more than 35,000 military physicians treated as patients, the dataset is highly relevant and powerful. The investigators objectively evaluated health outcomes by focusing on evidence-based, measurable clinical decisions deemed “high value” or “low value,” comparing how the frequency of these choices related with physician versus nonphysician patient status.

Coauthor Jonathan Gruber, PhD, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., explained this methodology in an interview. “The literature is clear that high-value care has positive health outcomes with relatively small increases in health care spending, and that low-value care has no impact on health outcomes with large increases in spending.”

“One concern with this analysis, of course, is that physicians may be of different health statuses and have different tastes for medical interventions than nonphysicians,” the investigators wrote. They addressed this problem in five ways, by focusing on widely accepted medical standards that apply to all patients; examining both high- and low-value care to eliminate one-sided bias; controlling for underlying health differences across groups; comparing physicians with other military officers to account for underlying tastes; and evaluating military officer dependents in comparison with physician dependents, the latter of whom may benefit from medical knowledge by virtue of personal relationship.

“Our results suggest that physicians do only slightly better than nonphysicians,” the investigators wrote, “but not by much and not always.” Low-value care was slightly less common among physicians, but this difference was described as “modest.” Analysis of high-value care was more mixed, with some results supporting equivalence between groups and others pointing to a slightly higher rate of high-value care among physician patients.

“These results provide a rough boundary on the extent to which additional information disclosure [beyond prevailing levels] can be expected to improve the delivery of health care in the U.S.,” the investigators wrote. “[M]ost of the explanation behind the over- and underutilization of low- and high-value services likely arises from factors other than informational deficiencies of patients.”

“Perhaps one interpretation of these findings is that patients remain generally deferential to the care recommendations of their treating physicians, even in the case of near fully informed patients,” the investigators wrote, noting that this interpretation aligns with a recent working paper that found that physicians play a greater role in selecting the site of MRI scans than patient cost-sharing factors.

Looking to the future, Dr. Gruber said that he and his colleagues plan on exploring “what drives this lack of response among physicians [as patients].”

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging. The investigators reported no conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Frakes MD et al. Natl Bur Econ Res. 2019 Jul. doi: 10.3386/w26038.

This article was updated 8/6/19.

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