Unbiased Analysis of Today's Healthcare Issues

Health Insurance, Physician Compensation and the Quantity of Medical Care

Written By: Jason Shafrin - May• 30•08

Many studies have attempted to determine how the manner in which physicians are compensated by health insurance companies affects the quantity of medical care provided. Today I will summarize some seminal studies in this field.

Epstein, Begg and McNeil (NEJM 1986)

In this study, the authors examine whether or not there is a difference in the rate of ambulatory testing between physicians in a large fee-for-service (FFS) group and a large prepaid group. The physicians were internists who were caring for patients with uncomplicated hypertension. The authors found that 50% more electrocadriograms (EKGs) were obtained in the FFS group and 40% more chest radiographs were obtained in the FFS group [compared to the prepaid group]. There did not seem to be any difference in testing rates between FFS and prepaid doctors for blood counts and urinalyses. This is not surprising, however, because the profit physicians earned from EKGs and chest radiographs was significantly higher than the profit they made from each blood count or urinalysis. Further, the cost of preforming EKGs and chest radiographs was much higher than the cost to preform blood counts and urinalyses.

Thus, this study concludes that patient testing rates are different between FFS and prepaid doctors, but this effect is only observed for high cost and/or high margin ambulatory tests.

Newhouse and Marquis (JHR 1978)

Physicians may treat patients differently based on how the patient’s insurance company pays them. However, the patient base of most physicians includes a wide variety of health plans and thus it may be difficult to discriminate care levels by insurance type. The “norms hypothesis” predicts that physicians treat patients in accordance with the average or modal insurance coverage in a given metropolitan area. In other words, “the level of a community’s insurance coverage determines physician norms.” If this were true, it would imply that there would be significant variation in medical care quantities across geographic regions but very little variations by patient for each physician.

The authors use data from the RAND Health Insurance Study in Dayton, Ohio. The authors test whether or not the patients own insurance rate will affect hospital admissions, the length of a hospital stay or the number of physician office visits. The authors find no evidence that community-level coinsurance rate impact hospital admissions, while the patient’s own coinsurance rate significantly affects hospital admission. In the 1963 data, neither the community insurance variable nor individual insurance variable had any affect on the length of a hospital stay or the number of physician visits, however in the 1970 data, individual coinsurance rates had a large impact on the length of a hospital stay or the number of physician visits, while the community level coinsurance rate had no impact on these dependent variables.

Hellerstein (RAND J Econ 1998)

Most health policy wonks believe we could significantly reduce health care costs without sacrificing quality by using more generic drugs. Many states have passed “permissive substitution laws” which allow pharmacists to substitute generic drugs in place of name-brand ones unless the physician explicitly instructs them not to do so. Other states use a “two-line” prescription method. With these prescription pads, doctors can sign their name in one of two spots: the first indicates that generic substitution is allowed and the other indicates that the brand name option is medically necessary.

Hellerstein uses data from the 1989 NAMCS, and finds that “30% of the unobserved (residual) variance in the prescription choice is physician-specific, rather than patient specific.” Does an individual’s health insurance influence the physician’s prescribing behavior? This paper finds that an individual’s health insurance does not influence prescribing decisions. However, “conditional on a patient’s insurance status, a patient who switches to a physician with a marginally greater fraction of HMO patients is 10.12% more likely to receive a generically written prescription.”


Why does the composition of the physician’s patient base seem to matter for Hellerstein (1998), but not for Marquis and Newhouse (1978) or Epstein, Begg and McNeil (NEJM 1986)? The main reason is likely that Hellerstein examines medical care in which physician do not receive any compensation. Physicians receive no more or less revenue from prescribing name brand compared to generic drugs and thus have no incentive to find out how they are being paid by each individual’s insurance company. On the other hand, Marquis and Newhouse found that hospital admissions, the length of the hospital stay, and the number of office visits is affected by an indvidiual’s health insurance variables since this type of medical care is high margin and high cost. Similarly, Epstein, Begg and McNeil (1986) found that how an individual’s insurance company compensates physicians matters for high margin, high cost EKGs and chest radiographs, but does not seem to matter for low margin, low cost blood counts and urinalyses.

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One Comment

  1. jay says:

    In our hospital, waiting times in the ER were long and getting longer. 4 hours. Exasperated with the doctors who had been running the ER for almost 20 years, the hospital fired them. The new group is a national group with established policies. The old group paid its doctors by the shift and they saw an average of fewer than 20 patients per shift. The new group pays its doctors by the visit RVU total. The holdovers from the old group saw an average of 18 patients per shift under the $/shift rule, but 24 patients/ shift under the new rule. Throughput has increased, waiting times reduced, and service to the community is better. Productivity is a downside to non-piecework compensation models for physicians and other providers of care where throughput is an important part of quality from the perspective of the customer.