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Millions of Americans are failing to get recommended health care, new study finds
21 January 2003

By Sarah Yang, Media Relations

Berkeley - Tens of millions of patients with chronic diseases in this country are not receiving the type of care management proven to be effective, according to a new nationwide survey of physician organizations by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago.

The researchers found that physician groups on average use only 32 percent of 16 recommended care management processes - which include the use of nurse case managers, programs to help patients care for their illness, disease registries, reminder systems, and feedback to physicians on their quality of care. The study, published today (Wednesday, Jan. 22) in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also found that one physician group in six uses none of these processes.

"The results suggest that Americans are not receiving care that is as good as it could and should be," said Stephen Shortell, professor and dean of UC Berkeley's School of Public Health and principal investigator of the study. "In many ways, physicians are still organized to practice medicine the way they did 100 years ago."

The researchers focused on care for asthma, congestive heart failure, depression and diabetes, which together account for 140,000 deaths and $173 billion in costs each year in the United States. They surveyed 1,040 medical groups and independent practice associations with at least 20 physician members. The presidents, chief executive officers or medical directors of the groups took part in one-hour telephone surveys from September 2000 to September 2001.

"The processes we studied are known to improve the quality of patient care," said Dr. Lawrence Casalino, assistant professor of health studies at the University of Chicago and lead author of the paper. "Our research indicates that physician organizations are beginning to create effective processes to increase quality, but most still have a long way to go."

Seven out of 10 physician groups surveyed do not keep a list of patients who have serious chronic diseases like diabetes. Half of the groups reported having no clinical information technology such as electronic data systems to track patients' illnesses, medications and laboratory results.

The researchers found that physician groups are more likely to use organized processes to improve care when they have clinical information technology in place and are given external incentives such as financial rewards, public recognition or better contracts with health plans for high quality care.

"Unfortunately, most physician practices don't have a lot of extra resources or capital to invest in electronic medical records and to hire new types of personnel required to implement team-based care," said Shortell.

In the study, researchers found that the key to getting physicians to use care management processes is for health plans and large purchasers of health care - corporate employers and federal and state governments - to provide external incentives. However, one in three physician groups reported having no incentives to improve quality.

"We know incentives work, but for the most part, they are not being used," said Casalino. "The federal government and large employers have the most leverage to establish incentives. They have the opportunity and the responsibility to do so. Most Americans probably don't realize that those who purchase health insurance on their behalf are not paying for quality care."

The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, follows two recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) reports that found the nation's health care delivery system falling far short in its ability to apply new technology and biomedical knowledge safely and appropriately. The IOM reports blame a lack of organized processes rather than shortcomings in individual physicians for the quality gap.

The reports call for the federal government to lead efforts to improve treatment safety and quality. They say health plans, large employers and government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid should reward physicians for improving quality.

Casalino pointed out that some Fortune 500 companies have set up successful programs to do just that, and that Medicare and Medicaid have recently created demonstration projects that reward quality. In addition, six California health plans have recently started a new Pay for Performance initiative designed to reward physician groups for achievements in documented performance measures.

But such programs remain the exception, and the use of organized processes to improve quality is still uncommon. "Given that most physicians practice in smaller organizations with fewer resources to implement care management processes, our study probably underestimates the extent of the problem in this country," said Casalino.

"There are now 125 million Americans suffering from a chronic illness, and that number is only going to grow," said Shortell. "We have an opportunity to provide much better care for ourselves than we do now."

Other co-authors of the study are Robin R. Gillies, Julie A. Schmittdiel, James C. Robinson, Thomas Rundall, Helen Schauffler and Margaret C. Wang from UC Berkeley's School of Public Health; Dr. Thomas Bodenheimer from UC San Francisco's Department of Family and Community Medicine; and Nancy Oswald from Healthcare Consulting in Berkeley, Calif.