Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Challenges of Expanding Palliative Care

Why are we not likely to see the influence of palliative care advanced during the health reform period? Two reasons leap to mind.
One, hospitals and hospices are the most prominent, and frequent, sponsors of palliative care programs, and we know what’s happening to their reimbursement (it's getting squeezed, with no end in sight). So, as these provider organizations are forced to tighten their belts, is it reasonable to expect (especially in light of the heightened priority on patient safety ) hospitals to increase their financial support of palliative care services? Furthermore, it’s unlikely that the financial performance of hospices will dramatically improve anytime soon. So, we shouldn’t expect a legion of hospices across the nation committing greater resources to palliative care services. It’s not that hospital and hospice executives are tone-deaf to palliative care. It’s just that these executives are faced with budgetary trade-offs and palliative care is not (yet) a high priority.
Two, primary care continues to be undervalued within the American medical system. Will these prevailing views change? Of course. Anytime soon? Unlikely. American primary care is in shambles, and it is now clear that it will not be viable in the future unless significant changes occur in our national attitude about its value and in the way we pay for it. While in other developed nations, 70-80 percent of all physicians are generalists and 20-30 percent are specialists, in America the ratio is reversed, the result of a payment system that has evolved to reward expensive care and penalize proactive management, even though the data are unequivocal that more palliative care (according to the Dartmouth Medical Atlas) within a community results in lower costs and better late-life care.
The result of our studies into the compensation of palliative medicine physicians is revealing. Specialists typically take home at least double the income of the palliative medicine practitioner. Medicare’s payment system, which is the basis for most commercial payment as well, favors specialists in two ways. It pays them a higher rate for their time (implying that what they do is more difficult and more valuable), and it allows them to earn money through procedures that are unavailable in primary or palliative care.The career-choice implications of these financial dynamics are not lost on medical students, who have been diverted in droves away from what many apparently see as an unrewarding primary care office existence. Between 2000 and 2005, the percentage of medical school graduates choosing Family Medicine dropped from a low 14% to an abysmal 8%. Among Internal Medicine residents, an astonishing 75% now end up as hospitalists or sub-specialists rather than office-based general internists. By the way, average salaries for hospitalists are nearly 30% higher than those for palliative medicine physicians.
What I find discouraging is that the reform discussions and proposals have not addressed the issue of reimbursement for primary care . Tell me, please, that I’m missing something here. More on this conundrum of primary/palliative care to follow in future posts.

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