New York, Jan. 12: Complaints from patients at New York City’s public hospitals and other measures of their care — like how long before they are discharged and how they fare afterwards — will be reflected in doctors’ pay cheques under a plan being negotiated by the physicians and their hospitals.
The proposal, seen as a bold experiment in performance pay, represents a broad countrywide push away from the traditional model of rewarding doctors for the volume of services they order, a system that has been criticised for promoting unnecessary treatment.
The public hospital system has come up with 13 performance indicators. Among them are how well patients say their doctors communicate with them, how many patients with heart failure and pneumonia are readmitted within 30 days, how quickly emergency room patients go from triage to beds, whether doctors get to the operating room on time and how quickly patients are discharged.
In the wake of changes laid out in the Affordable Care Act, public and private hospitals are already preparing to have their income tied partly to patient outcomes and cost containment, but the city’s plan extends that financial incentive to the front line, the doctors directly responsible for treatment.
It also shows how the new law could change longstanding relationships, giving more power to some of the poorest and most vulnerable patients over doctors who run their care.
“I would expect that we’re going to see this become more and more prevalent in compensation arrangements,” said Alan Aviles, president of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs the city’s 11 public hospitals and is America’s largest public health system, handling more than 1 million emergency room visits a year.
The corporation’s plan would make doctors’ raises dependent on their performance on quality measures. The details are being negotiated with the doctors’ union, but both sides expect to reach an agreement that incorporates the idea.
Still, doctors are hesitant, saying they could be penalised for conditions they cannot control, including how clean the hospital floors are, the attentiveness of nurses and the availability of beds.
It is also unclear whether performance incentives work in the medical world; studies of similar programmes in other countries indicate that doctors learn to manipulate the system.
“The consequences in a complex system like a hospital for giving an incentive for one little piece of behaviour are virtually impossible to foresee,” said Dr. David U. Himmelstein, professor of public health at the City University of New York and a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School, who has reviewed the literature on performance incentives. “There are ways of gaming it without even outright lying that distort the meaning of the measure.”
Over the next few years, the federal government will financially reward or penalise hospitals based on how they perform on benchmarks that are believed to be correlated with better patient outcomes.
By aligning doctors’ pay to the same benchmarks, city hospitals hope to perform well enough to qualify for federal bonuses.
Under the proposal, bonuses of up to $59 million over the next three years would be distributed to about 3,300 doctors, and would be given to physicians as a group at each hospital, rather than as individuals, so that even the worst doctor would benefit.
They would amount to up to 2.5 per cent of salaries, which range from about $140,000 for entry-level primary-care physicians to $400,000 for experienced specialists.
Administrators at several private New York hospitals said they were considering incorporating the federal benchmarks into their salary structures, but have not yet done so on a significant scale.