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How American Doctors See Their Profession: Changes and Challenges

Highlights of a survey conducted on behalf of The Physicians Foundation by Merritt Hawkins, September 2018 (Full survey can be found here)

Doctors and patients are our primary audiences. Therefore, it’s important to know what doctors are facing, doing and thinking, so we can enter the conversation aware of their concerns, worries and desires.

The state of medicine for American doctors is not only changing – it’s becoming more difficult, in terms of technological demands, patient knowledge and advocacy, reimbursement, a shifting landscape for the companies that provide medications and devices, and a host of other factors. The Physicians Foundation conducted a wide-ranging study of what doctors are up against, and how they’re coping. Close to 9,000 physicians answered the survey, providing a sufficient sample size to achieve an error rate of +/- 1.057% as determined by experts in survey research methodology at the University of Tennessee. The sample included younger and older physicians, private practice owners or partners, employed physicians, male physicians, female physicians, primary care physicians and specialists.

We think this provides some significant insights into how we can approach our audience and assist them in coping with the present and the future. Here are some of the highlights that came out of the study.

INTRODUCTION: THE POWER OF ONE BILLION

Physicians in the United States today handle over one billion patient encounters a year1 in office, emergency room, hospital, urgent care, retail and other settings. A lot happens during these encounters, from the mundane to the momentous, from the comic to the tragic.

Despite the proliferation and importance of many other types of clinicians, physicians remain the indispensable caregivers on whose shoulders the preponderance of patient care continues to rest. Through the diagnoses they make, the tests they order, the patients they admit, the procedures they perform and the treatment plans they develop, physicians are the primary providers or catalysts of healthcare delivery in the United States.

Because physicians remain the key drivers of healthcare quality, access and cost, we believe how they practice and how they view their own profession is of critical importance to health professionals, policy makers, media members and to the public.

The Physicians Foundation’s Survey of America’s Physicians is conducted on a biennial basis to “take the pulse” of the nation’s doctors. Our goal is to provide a portrait of America’s physicians: their morale levels, practice plans, practice patterns and their perspectives on the medical profession today.

We believe the survey offers insights and data that will be of interest to healthcare professionals, policy makers, academics, media members and to anyone who has seen a physician or is likely to do so. We encourage all those with a stake in healthcare delivery to read and to reference the survey, and to comment on its findings.

WHO RESPONDED

Approximately 37% of survey respondents are primary care physicians (family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics) while 32% of all physicians are in primary care, according to the American Medical Association’s Physician Master File.

About 63% of survey respondents are in specialty medicine, compared to 68% of all doctors. The survey therefore is slightly weighted toward primary care physicians, who responded at a somewhat higher rate than specialists.

The average age of survey respondents is 52.33 years, while the average age of all physicians is 52.04, according to AMA data. Survey respondents are therefore virtually the same age on average as are all physicians. Responses from physicians in the 35 or younger cohort are somewhat overrepresented. These physicians represent 11.2% of all respondents though they represent only 5.8% of all physicians, according to AMA data.

The gender of survey respondents also generally matches that of physicians as a whole. 33.9% of survey respondents are female while 34.6% of all physicians are female, indicating females are overrepresented in the survey by a very small margin. The number of female physicians has greatly increased in recent years. In 1981, females comprised only 12% of all physicians and were grossly underrepresented in medical schools. Today, approximately 50% of medical students are female. Female physicians are particularly concentrated in primary care and obstetrics and represent the future of these practice areas

KEY FINDINGS

  • 80% of physicians are at full capacity or are overextended
  • 23% of physician time is spent on non-clinical paperwork
  • 88% of physicians indicate that some, many or all of their patients have a social situation (poverty, unemployment, etc.) that poses a serious impediment to their health. Only 1% of physicians indicate that none of their patients have a social situation that poses a serious impediment to their health
  • Physicians indicate patient relationships are their greatest source of professional satisfaction, while electronic health records (EHR) are their greatest source of professional dissatisfaction
  • 69% are prescribing fewer pain medications in light of the opioid crisis
  • 18.5% now practice some form of telemedicine
  • 31% of physicians’ patients do not consistently adhere to their treatment plans
  • 46% of physicians indicate relations between physicians and hospitals are somewhat or mostly negative
image of Doctor and patient

OVERVIEW: THE STAKES ARE RISING

Between 2006 and 2016, the number of applicants to US medical schools rose from 39,108 to 53,042, an increase of 35%. Of the 53,042 who applied for the 2016/17 school year, only 21,030 (about 40%) matriculated (U.S. News, Oct. 31, 2017). After reaching an all-time high, medical school applications decreased slightly to 51,680 in 2017/18, but the number of people seeking a medical career remains high by historical standards.

Clearly, medicine still has a strong appeal to many young people, for good reason. For those able to complete four years of college, four years of medical school and three to ten years of training, medicine offers significant attractions.

What attracts most physicians to medicine is the unique nature of the physician/patient relationship, a fact confirmed by this survey. The majority of physicians submit to the grueling and expensive grind that is medical education and training primarily in order to play a positive role in the lives of other human beings.

And that is the root of the dichotomy seen in the medical profession today.

While doctors enjoy secure employment, many of them are experiencing career dissatisfaction, a fact also confirmed by this survey. Reports of high rates of physician burnout and even abnormally high rates of physician suicide are becoming common. Indeed, physicians have the highest rate of suicide of any profession, more than twice that of the general population (Medscape, May 7, 2018).

The Survey of America’s Physicians suggests that one cause of this trend is the fact that many physicians believe that their ability to do what they are trained to do, and what attracted them to medicine initially (that is, care for patients) is being circumscribed by external forces. These external forces may include excessive bureaucracy and regulations, but may also include societal problems facing their patients, such as poverty, over which physicians have little control.

There are, of course, many other attendant pressures to practicing medicine, a high level of responsibility and personal time constraints among them. But it is the inability of physicians to be physicians that is the primary driver of their professional dissatisfaction.

WHY IT MATTERS

How physicians feel about their profession, and how they respond to these feelings, has important implications for healthcare delivery in the United States. The shortage of physicians is projected to escalate in response to an aging population and other factors. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recently forecasted a deficit of up to 121,300 physicians by 2030.

Doctor shortages already are being felt, even in larger communities where physicians are relatively abundant. In its 2017 Survey of Physician Appointment Wait Times, Merritt Hawkins found that the time it takes to schedule a doctor’s appointment in 15 major metropolitan areas increased by 30% from 2014 to 2017. Physician appointment wait times are even more prolonged in mid-sized communities of approximately 100,000 people, where there are fewer physicians per capita than in larger cities.

An aging population and a variety of societal factors are driving up demand for physicians. Consider:

  • By 2030, the population 65 and older will grow by 55% (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • People 65 and older represent 14% of the population but account for 34% of inpatient procedures and 37.4% of diagnostic tests and treatments. Older people see a physician at three times the rate of younger people (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/ CDC)
  • More than 70% of adults in the U.S. have at least one of the following unhealthy behaviors: Smoking, excessive drinking, insufficient sleep, physical inactivity and obesity. 12% of the country has three of these unhealthy behaviors. (America’s Health Rankings, United Health Foundation)
  • 57% of today’s children will be obese by the time they reach 35 (New England Journal of Medicine/ USA Today. November 11, 2017)
  • 63,600 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, more than the 41,070 who died of breast cancer (CDC)
  • The suicide rate in the U.S. increased by 24% from 1999 to 2014 and suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. (CDC)
  • 43 million Americans live in poverty. Poverty has been closely associated with high rates of diabetes, inflammatory disease, low birth weights, obesity, mental illness and lifespans 10 to 15 years lower than those of wealthy Americans (US News, April 20, 2016).

NUMBER OF EMPLOYED PHYSICIANS IS GROWING

Based on 2016 data, the AMA indicates that 47.1% of physicians remain independent, the lowest number the AMA has recorded (Policy Research Perspectives: Updated Data on Physician Practice Arrangements. American Medical Association. 2017).

The consulting firm Accenture has put the number of independent physicians at approximately 33%. The number included in this survey (31.4%) is the most recent data, and based on thousands of annual interactions with physicians and physician groups, is consistent with what Merritt Hawkins sees in today’s market.

WHO PAYS PHYSICIANS?

The survey asked physicians if they are “employed by a hospital,” “employed by a hospital-owned medical group” or “employed by a physician-owned medical group.”

Approximately 19% of survey respondents indicated they are employed by a hospital, while another 17.4% indicated they are employed by a hospital-owned medical group. The survey therefore indicates that more than 36% of physicians receive their compensation directly or indirectly from a hospital.

More than 12% of physicians indicated they are employed by a physician- owned medical group. While these physicians are not practice owners or partners, they receive their compensation from other physicians who own the practices by which they are employed.

Fewer than one-third of physicians (31.4%) indicated they are practice owners or partners, the lowest percent recorded in this survey since it was first conducted in 2012. These physicians are essentially business owners who pay themselves after they have met payroll, rent, equipment and other standard business expenses, just as other business owners do.

These distinctions are important, because who pays physicians may affect their practice patterns and behaviors. Physicians who pay themselves, for example, may be motivated to work longer hours and see more patients than those who receive a check (see Part III below). Physicians paid by a hospital, whether directly or indirectly, may alter their practice patterns to align with the goals and interests of the hospital, ceding some of their clinical autonomy for the security and manageable schedule associated with employment. Physicians employed by a physician-owned group may have their practices patterns influenced or determined for them by the owners of the group.

Younger doctors are significantly more likely to be employed by a hospital or hospital-owned group than are older physicians. The 2018 survey indicates that 53.1% of physicians 45 or younger are employed by a hospital or hospital owned group, compared to 28.9% of physicians 46 or older. Merritt Hawkins’ 2017 Survey of Final- Year Medical Residents indicates that only 9% of physicians in their last year of training would prefer an independent practice setting such as a partnership or a solo practice.

53.1% of physicians 45 or younger are employed by a hospital or hospital owned group, compared to 28.9% of physicians 46 or older

These data suggest that the independent practice model is under pressure in a healthcare system increasingly dominated by large, integrated organizations, whether hospital systems, large medical groups, corporations or insurance companies. All of these entities typically implement the employed physician model to achieve the standardized physician compensation formulas, electronic health records, quality measures and treatment guidelines necessary in an era of global, quality-based payments and population health management.

Physicians seeking to keep their independent status often must do so through partnerships and collaborations in order to participate in population health management and other large group contracts offered by government or private payers.

DOUBTS ABOUT HOSPITAL EMPLOYMENT OF PHYSICIANS

Most respondents (57.5%) do not believe hospital employment of doctors is a positive trend. Interestingly, even many physicians who are employed by hospitals (34.6%) do not believe that hospital employment of physicians is a positive trend.

Of those 45 and younger, 42.7% do not think hospital employment of physicians will result in the dual benefits of enhanced quality and reduced cost, compared to 64.1% of those 46 or older. Relatively few physicians in either age category indicate they believe hospital employment of physicians is a positive trend. Only 19.8% of physicians 45 or younger agree that hospital employment of physicians is a positive trend as do only 10.5% of physicians 46 or older, with a substantial number (37.6% of younger physicians, 24.5% of older physicians) neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

Most respondents (57.5%) do not believe hospital employment of doctors is a positive trend.

These numbers suggest that many physicians are dubious about the employed practice model even though they have chosen to participate in it, perhaps fearing that employment by hospitals will lead to a loss of clinical and administrative autonomy.

STATE OF PHYSICIAN/HOSPITAL RELATIONS

Historically, the interests of hospitals and physicians have not always aligned and the relationship between physicians and hospitals can be a contentious one. The 2018 survey suggests that despite the widespread integration of hospitals and physician practices, friction between the two parties remains prevalent.

The 2018 survey included for the first time a question asking physicians to comment on the current state of relations between physicians and hospitals. Significantly more physicians (46.4%) indicate that the relationship is somewhat or mostly negative than indicate it is somewhat or mostly positive (31.7%).

PHYSICIAN MORALE AND BURNOUT: A CONTINUING CHALLENGE

Since it was first conducted in 2012, The Survey of America’s Physicians has revealed a physician workforce characterized by low levels of professional morale and high levels of pessimism about the future of the medical profession. These findings have important public health policy implications that have been highlighted in each of the reports summarizing survey results.

The primary public policy and healthcare concern attached to low physician morale is the prospect of physicians modifying their practice styles in ways that reduce patient access, or the prospect that physicians will abandon patient care roles or leave medicine altogether.

There are also economic implications attached to the prospect of physicians reducing their clinical roles in response to low morale or high rates of burn-out. To a significant degree, physicians are the engines of healthcare economics driving this robust sector of the economy.

The extent of the economic contributions physicians make to healthcare is quantified by the January, 2018, AMA-sponsored study The National Economic Impact of Physicians. This study estimates the total economic impact of office-based physicians in active patient care in the U.S., using as barometers physician output, jobs, wages and benefits and state and local tax revenue. Highlights of physician economic contributions from the study include:

  • of office-based physicians in the United States is $2.3 trillion based on 2015 data, up from $1.6 trillion in 2012.
  • Each physician supports a per capita economic output of $3.1 million based on 2015 data, up from $2.2 million in 2012.
  • On average, each physician supports about 17 jobs based on 2015 data, up from 14 jobs in 2012.
  • On average, each physician paid a total of $1.4 million in wages and benefits based on 2015 data, up from $1.1 million in wages and benefits in 2012.
  • On average, each physician supports $126,129 in local and state tax revenues, based on 2015 data, up from $90,449 based in 2012.

Source: American Medical Association. The National Economic Impact of Physicians. January, 2018

In addition, physicians generate an average of $1.5 million a year in net revenue to their affiliated hospitals, according to Merritt Hawkins’ 2016 Survey of Physician Inpatient/Outpatient Revenue.

Physician professional satisfaction and engagement, therefore, are matters of public concern from a quality of care, access to care, and economic perspective.

A TROUBLING PATTERN

The Survey of America’s Physicians has consistently indicated in each of the prior years it has been conducted that the professional morale of physicians is problematic. The same pattern emerges in the 2018 survey.

When asked about their morale, 55.3% of respondents reported it as somewhat or very negative in the 2018 survey. That sounds bad, and it is a majority, but in fact it’s down from the 68.2% of 2012.

There are differences according to employment status. Responses to this question indicate a marked variance between employed physicians and practice owners. A small majority of the of employed physicians (51.5%) express positive feelings about their morale and the current state of the medical profession, while only 36.7% of practice owners express positive feelings. There also is a marked variance between younger and older physicians. 57.4% of physicians 45 or younger express positive feelings about their morale and about the medical profession, while only 39% of physicians 46 or older express such feelings.

Younger physicians have been educated and trained in the era of electronic health records and value-based payment models and may not find these and other characteristics of contemporary medical practice to be as irksome as do older physicians.

The experience of younger physicians may be qualitatively different from that of older physicians. Younger physicians have been educated and trained in the era of electronic health records and value-based payment models and may not find these and other characteristics of contemporary medical practice to be as irksome as do older physicians. Or, they simply may not have been exposed to the stresses of medical practice as long as older physicians and are not yet as affected by them.

Employed physicians may have a higher level of professional morale and optimism than practice owners because they do not have to contend with the challenges of running a medical practice.

However, significant numbers of all types of physicians, including younger physicians at the front end of their careers and employed physicians, express negative feelings about their morale and the current state of the medical profession. It is not necessarily a positive comment to note that only 42.6% of younger physicians express negative feelings about their morale and their profession.

By contrast, in a national study, the majority of American workers (79%) indicate they are somewhat or very satisfied with their jobs. Only 15% indicate they are somewhat or very dissatisfied (The State of American Jobs. Pew Research Center. October 6, 2016).

DISSATISFACTION OVER EHRs, REGULATIONS AND LOSS OF AUTONOMY

The 2018 survey identifies three primary pain points physicians feel regarding medical practice. The first is “electronic health record (EHR) design and interoperability,” which 39.2% of physicians identified as one of the two factors they find least satisfying about medicine. They find attention to this detail work inefficient (56%) and a drain on time better spent with patients (65.7%).

A study published in the March 2016 issue of Health Affairs indicates that physicians now spend $15 billion a year documenting quality measures and that primary care physicians spend an average of 3.9 hours per week on documenting quality measures

second, related pain point is “regulatory and insurance requirements” which 37.7% of physicians cited as one of the two factors they find least satisfying about medicine. Medicine is one of the most highly regulated professions in the United States, with Medicare compliance rules and regulations alone running into the tens of thousands of pages.

The third primary pain point physicians cite as being a least satisfying aspect of medical practice is “loss of clinical autonomy.” After going through more than a decade of training, 66% said they feel that their practice is adversely impacted by external factors such as third-party authorization, treatment protocols, EHR design and other requirements (although this figure is down from 72.1% in the 2016 survey).

In addition to these pain points, many physicians do not feel that their skills are judged accurately. In particular, a substantial majority do not believe that Maintenance of Certification (MOC) tests, as required by their specialty boards to remain certified in their specialties, accurately reflect their clinical abilities (see following chart):

SATISFACTION WITH PATIENT RELATIONSHIPS, STATURE AND STIMULATION

In each of the national physician surveys The Physicians Foundation has conducted, doctors have made it clear that their primary source of professional satisfaction is derived from patient relationships. In the 2018 survey, the “patient/physician relationship” was identified as a primary source of professional satisfaction by 78.7% of respondents.

Patient relationships far exceed other sources of professional satisfaction cited by doctors, such as the “professional stature of medicine,” “intellectual stimulation,” “professional relationsh with colleagues,” and “income/ compensation,” the latter being cited by only 18.9% of physicians as one of their top two sources of professional satisfaction.

image of Doctor and patient

AVERAGE NUMBER OF PATIENTS SEEN

Physicians responding to the 2018 survey see an average of 20.2 patients per day, down from 20.6 in 2016, but up from 19.5 in 2014 and 20.1 in 2012. Despite a 2.4% drop in hours worked from 2016 to 2018, physician productivity in terms of average number of patients seen decreased by only 1.9% in the same period. However, given that physicians see close to one billion patients a year in office-based settings, a 1.9% decline equates to close to two million fewer patients seen. Younger, female and employed physicians tend to see fewer patients than older, male and practice-owning physicians.

THE VALUE-BASED CHALLENGE

In recent years there has been a concerted effort in the healthcare industry to move from volume-based payment models, which compensate physicians and hospitals based the number of services they provide and the number of patients they see, to value-based models, which pay healthcare providers based on a variety of quality measures that include patient satisfaction, treatment outcomes, lower hospital readmission rates and others.

The movement has been stimulated by the government through legislation such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and through government payment models such as the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), which revises how Medicare reimburses physicians, putting more weight on value-based metrics. The intent of value-based payments is to reduce healthcare costs thought to derive from the fee-for-service payment system and to enhance the quality of care patients receive.

However, physician participation in value-based compensation models remains limited. Less than half of physicians surveyed (47.1%) indicate that any of their compensation is tied to value-based metrics such as patient satisfaction, readmission rates, or others. Though this number is up from 42.8% in 2016, it suggests that the movement from volume to value remains more aspirational than actual where physician compensation is concerned. More than 13% of physicians are not sure if they are paid on value.

The majority of physicians (56.8%) either disagree or strongly disagree that value-based payments will improve care and lower costs, while only 18% either agree or strongly agree that they will.

High patient satisfaction scores, for example, may merely reflect that a physician is compliant to the wishes of his or her patients, while not necessarily acting in their best interests. Favorable treatment outcomes may be easier to achieve with healthy patients and harder to achieve with sicker patients, discouraging physicians from seeing more problematic patients.

In addition, value-based payments may reduce quality of care by reducing access to care. Physicians paid entirely on quality may elect to see a limited number of patients, both because they are not paid to see a high volume of patients and because they can better achieve quality outcomes by focusing on just a few.

As a result, physician compensation models are in continuous flux, as employers seek compensation structures that will reward physicians adequately for achieving quality measures while also keeping them productive and seeing patients. The ideal physician compensation formula has proven elusive, and some healthcare systems, most prominently Geisinger Health System, have abandoned value-based models of compensation altogether and are paying physicians straight salaries.

CONCLUSIONS

Several major trends are readily apparent.

The majority of physicians today identify as employees of hospitals or medical groups rather than private practice owners. On average, they are working fewer hours and seeing fewer patients. They spend about one-quarter of their time on non-clinical paperwork. Some are embracing emerging practice models such as telemedicine and concierge/direct pay.

Despite the move away from fee-for-service medicine, most physicians are not paid on value. The majority report poor morale and almost all report some feelings of burnout. Many plan to make a change in the next one to three years, such as retire or seek a nonclinical job, which will reduce the number of overall physician FTEs.

Since 2012 and every two years thereafter, The Survey of America’s Physicians has indicated that physicians are altering their practice patterns in ways likely to inhibit patient access to their services, due in part to their dissatisfaction with the prevailing medical practice environment. These findings are being borne out by an escalating physician shortage and lengthening physician appointment wait times.

As the patient population continues to grow and to age, and as societal problems such as poverty and drug abuse pose mounting healthcare challenges, it is vital that physicians remain engaged and committed to the practice of medicine. Physician satisfaction and physician practice patterns are matters of public health and should be considered as a part of any comprehensive policy to ensure patient access to timely, quality care.

1Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

THE PHYSICIANS FOUNDATION

Gary Price, M.D.

President

Tim Norbeck

Chief Executive Officer

Walker Ray, M.D.

Chairman, Research Committee

Russell Libby, M.D.

Member of the Board Survey Committee

Palmer Jones

Member of the Board Survey Committee

What do you think?

Written by hsandm

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