Physician groups and hospitals have come to rely on electronic patient portals (EPPs) for many things, including appointment scheduling and reminders, delivery of test results, and pre- and post-visit information gathering from patients. Most of the research into the clinical efficacy and cost-effectiveness of EPPs has taken place in primary care and internal medicine settings. But in the August 5, 2020 issue of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Varady et al. examine the benefits of EPP use among patients undergoing orthopaedic procedures of various types. In the process, they also uncover racial and socioeconomic disparities in the use of EPPs.
The retrospective review of >18,000 patients (average age of 56.9 years) undergoing an orthopaedic procedure at 2 Boston-area academic hospitals found a veritable 50-50 split between those who used the EPP and those who did not. Relative to white patients, African-American and Hispanic patients were significantly less likely to use the EPP. Other demographic factors associated with portal nonuse were non-English speaking, male sex, low income, and having less than a college education.
Multivariable regression analysis demonstrated that, relative to EPP nonuse, EPP use was associated with significantly lower no-show rates, increased odds of completing one or more patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs), and improved overall patient satisfaction. The degree of after-surgery functional improvements measured with PROMs was the same among EPP users and nonusers.
The authors home in on the benefits of the 27% reduction in missed appointments this study divulged. First and foremost, missed appointments have been shown to negatively affect patient outcomes. On the provider side, no-shows increase staff frustration and cost time and money. (The 2 hospitals realized a combined estimated $200,000 in savings over 1 year from the reduction in no-shows.) Consequently, Varady et al. say that “the benefit of reducing missed appointments alone may be sufficiently strong to warrant efforts to increase EPP enrollment.”
Increased efforts among orthopaedic office staff and clinicians to enroll patients in portal usage during their hospital stay or during pre- or postoperative visits could also help address the disparity issue. “These results have important implications for the orthopaedic surgery community in…achieving more equitable care,” the authors conclude.
It is no secret that patients with Medicaid (both adults and children) have difficulty making appointments for both elective and trauma-related orthopaedic care. They also travel further for care compared to privately insured patients. Conversely, Medicaid reimbursement rates for orthopaedic surgeries are substantially lower than those from Medicare and commercial insurers. Patients with Medicaid also tend to be more socially complex and have higher no-show rates for clinic appointments and surgery.
Consequently, as recently as 2011, only 40% of US orthopaedic surgeons were accepting new patients with Medicaid. This “bottleneck” effect may only get worse as reimbursement plans shift towards “pay-for-performance” and value-based payment, prompting surgeons and hospitals to become increasingly concerned about optimizing patient selection.
In a 2012 JBJS study, my colleague Ryan Calfee and co-authors demonstrated that patients with Medicaid were traveling to our institution (Washington University/Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis) not only for complex cases, but also for simple and moderate-complexity hand surgery issues. These patients were bypassing hand surgeons closer to home partly because the local hand surgeons did not accept Medicaid.
With those findings in mind, we decided to more closely examine Medicaid care delivery in our region. Ideally, the insurance mix of the area surrounding a hospital should match the payer mix of the hospital. Most of us who currently work or have trained in large academic centers know that this is often not the case. Anecdotally, there are hospitals in every region that “cherry pick” the best-insured patients and transfer out the financially less desirable cases to a nearby teaching hospital. In our paper, published in the August 21, 2019 issue of JBJS, the concept of “Medicaid share ratio” is intended to reflect whether the hospital payer mix matches the insurance mix of the community. A value of 1 indicates a perfect balance.
We examined the Medicaid share ratios of the 22 hospitals in our region to see if the hospitals were “pulling their weight.” The Medicaid share ratios for elective orthopaedic care such as total joint arthroplasty ranged from 0.05 to 4.73, demonstrating massive imbalances on both ends of the spectrum. We also found very high variability in the delivery of elective orthopaedic care (coefficient of variation = 93, where values >60 are considered “very high”) and moderate variability in trauma care (coefficient of variation = 34).
Our findings were sobering, but not unexpected. The fact that some hospitals bear the brunt of care for the underinsured and uninsured is not new, and the federal government currently includes Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments to offset these losses. However, DSH payments are scheduled to decrease substantially in coming years as part of the original intent of the Affordable Care Act. If the continuing (and possibly worsening) burden of undercompensated care becomes financially suffocating to teaching and safety-net hospitals, they may seek to curb those losses in ways that could further limit access to underinsured patients and/or drive costs up for patients with other types of insurance.
At the surgeon level, we should address surgeon hesitation to accept Medicaid patients through engagement with specialty societies and policy reform. Our research team is currently working to learn more about what surgeons and patients think are potential solutions for these disparities in our region. As surgeons and researchers, we must work toward a more complete understanding of what drives these disparities in orthopaedic care. Otherwise, it will be impossible to figure out how to fix them.
Christopher Dy, MD, MPH is a hand and peripheral nerve surgeon, an assistant professor at Washington University Orthopaedics, and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.
When it comes to access to many things people look for, big cities offer numerous advantages over small towns. This seems to be true for consumer goods and services—and for access to health care, especially “high-tech” procedures. That is one issue that Suchman et al. touch on in their retrospective database study in the September 19, 2018 issue of The Journal.
The study evaluated almost 650,000 patients who underwent one of three meniscal procedures (meniscectomy, meniscal repair, or meniscal allograft transplantation) in New York State from 2003 to 2015. In determining which procedures were performed where, the authors found that meniscectomies and meniscal repairs—the vast majority of the procedures performed—were scattered throughout the state, but that meniscal transplants were performed almost exclusively at urban, academic hospitals. This finding is not surprising, considering the technical complexity of allograft transplantation. However, if a patient who would benefit from a meniscal allograft lived three hours from an urban, academic setting, they would either have to travel to the city to be evaluated, treated, and followed, or settle for a different procedure from a surgeon closer to home. Neither option would be optimal in terms of quality care.
At the same time, this article emphasizes that not every patient needs to go to a large hospital to receive excellent care. While a preponderance of recent data shows an association between hospital and surgeon procedure volume and patient outcomes, those data do not mean that smaller hospitals or “medium volume” surgeons should not perform certain procedures. In fact, medium volume surgeons performed the largest proportion of meniscal procedures evaluated in this study.
The fact is that the “delivery” of health care does not happen via FedEx or UPS. The burden falls on patients to transport themselves to the physician, not vice versa. And until that model drastically changes, access disparities based on geography will likely remain.
However, Suchman et al. also found that the majority of patients who underwent any meniscal procedure had private insurance—and that Medicaid patients had the lowest rates of meniscal surgery. Although disparities arising from socioeconomic/insurance status are also very difficult to address, they would seem to be more remediable than disparities related to geography.
Chad A. Krueger, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media