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Bucking the Established

“Out with the old, in with the new!”

Who’s your doctor? Do you have one?

If you have one, you aren’t that interesting to them any longer because you’re “established.” This is not the fault of your doctor, but because of government rules for paying doctors: “new patient” visits pay better than “established patient” visits. “New patients” have a much better chance of needing new procedures, so they are even more special. Add to that the fact that more and more patients are going to need to become part of the “system” soon, and “new patients” quickly achieve the health care value trifecta.

Sorry. Those are the rules.

The higher payments made by insurers and government agencies for new patients was meant to offset the longer amount of time and cognitive challenges of dealing with a new patient that enters the doctors office. There is no question that there is more work to do when a new patient enters a medical facility: entering demographic data on a computer, actually taking a set of vital signs, performing a careful history and physical. But thanks to the explosion of ancillary health care assistants, imaging studies, the availability of the internet, and a constant push to do more in less time, doctors work differently today than they once did. Much of the data gathering is accomplished before the patient enters the office, imaging studies and baseline testing often occurs before a patient is even seen (remember those tests “required” for “quality” care?). Furthermore, because limitations for the frequency of testing has been imposed by government regulators, health care systems leap at the opportunity to “direct” doctors to order tests the moment the test might be needed. As such, “new patients” become particularly valuable to health care systems compared to “established” ones.

But are established patients really that tarnished? Should a doctor’s time with them be valued any less than the time spent with a new patient? Is there value in that continuity of care? Or are we just creating a incentivized human funnel to our health care system that favors new patients over those with whom we might develop relationships? Is the doctor-patient relationship at risk as a result?

Absolutely.

Just as it was intended.

Westby G. Fisher, MD, (aka Dr. Wes) is a board certified internist, cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist practicing at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, IL. He is also a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. He blogs at Dr.Wes, where this post originally appeared.

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