In the November 15, 2017 issue of The Journal, Courtney et al. carefully evaluate CMS data to compare TKA and THA costs, complications, and patient satisfaction between physician-owned and non-physician-owned hospitals. The authors used risk-adjusted data when comparing complication scores between the two hospital types, in an attempt to address the oft-rendered claim that surgeons at physician-owned facilities “cherry pick” the healthiest patients and operate on the highest-risk patients in non-physician-owned facilities.
In general, the findings suggest that, for TKA and THA, physician-owned hospitals are associated with lower costs to Medicare, fewer complications and readmissions, and superior patient-satisfaction scores compared with non-physician-owned hospitals. These findings should come as no surprise to readers of The Journal. One fundamental principle of health care finance is that physicians control 70% to 80% of the total cost of care with their direct decisions. When physician incentives are aligned with those related to the facility, the result is better care at lower cost.
Nevertheless, many policymakers remain convinced that physician-owners are completely mercenary and base every decision on maximizing profit margins—even if that includes ordering unnecessary tests, performing unnecessary procedures, or using inferior implants. We need more transparency among physician-owners at local and national levels to address these usually-erroneous assumptions, which are frequently repeated by local non-physician-owned health systems. For example, we should be transparent with the percentage of the margin that ends up in the physician-owner’s pocket. Whatever the “right” percentage is, I believe it should not be the dominant factor in a physician’s total income..
The findings from Courtney et al. should spur further debate on this issue. I am confident that the best outcomes for individual patients and the public result when physicians (and their patients) stay in direct control of decision making regarding care, when surgeons are appropriately motivated to be cost- and outcome-effective, and when we all do our part to care for the under- and uninsured.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD