Academic Articles Physician Compensation

Physician Reimbursement and Technology adoption

Economists and health researchers have generally shown that when doctors are paid on a fee-for-service basis, they will advice the patient to undergo more medical procedures than when the doctor is paid on a capitation or salaried basis (see my own paper: “Operating on Commission“). Which payment method maximizes welfare has not been proven and is likely to vary based on the medical procedure in question.

To add to the confusion, Astrid Selder writes in “Physician Reimbursement and Technology Adoption” that physician reimbursement mechanism may also affect the rate at which new technologies are adopted.

Selder lays out the following simple theoretical structure in which the social planner maximizes the following:

  • (1-π)U(Y-P)+πU(Y-P-acm-ε +G(m) -nm)
  • s.t.: P + πacm-%pi;R=πpm>=0
  • s.t.: R + (p-c)m>=0
  • s.t.: m<=B

The first constraints represent the zero-profit conditions for the insurer and the physician respectively and the third is a technology constraint. The probability of falling ill is π. Individuals have income Y, an insurance premium of P, and a coinsurance rate of a to may for the marginal cost, c, of a given level of medical treatment, m. Non monetary treatment costs (e.g.: side effects, time costs) are represented by the parameter n, while the benefits of the treatment are represented by the function G(m). The doctor receives a capitation payment of R and a marginal revenue amount given by p-c. B represents the technology constraint.

It seems obvious, but Selder shows that an increase in monetary medical costs (c) or non-medical costs (n) are welfare destroying. Technological innovations, represented as an increase in B are welfare improving if the technological constraint is binding or have no impact on welfare is the technological constraint is not binding. This results is intuitive: higher costs are bad, technological innovation is good.

This result, however, only holds when there is perfect information. With asymmetrical information, technological innovations may be welfare enhancing or welfare destroying. The welfare enhancing argument is similar to above: better technology leads to better medical care. If there is a moral hazard problem, however, using more basic technologies may actually help to counteract the tendency to over-consume medical care in the presence of insurance. Also, in the presence of moral hazard, technological innovations will cause insurance companies to charge higher premiums in order to cover the additional cost of this care.

How does the technological constraint, B, affect welfare in different physician compensation schemes?

  • “If B is a binding constraint and increases in B are welfare enhancing then a fee-for-service system should be used. Increases in B and reductions in [monetary medical costs] c are induced all of which are welfare improvements. Incentives with respect to [non-monetary costs] n cannot be improved upon.
  • If B is a binding constraint and increases in B are welfare reducing then a system of cost sharing [e.g.: capitation] should be implemented which induces reductions in B and c and gives no clearcut incentives with respect to n. Incentives with respect to B and c are thus optimal, and incentives with respect to n cannot be improved upon.
  • If B is not binding the optimal reimbursement system depends on the demand elasticities with respect to costs.”

In words:

“It has turned out that the state should classify diseases or treatments into subgroups which are reimbursed differently in order to achieve the desired welfare effects in each subgroup. Especially for the case of extremely severe illness shocks the introduction of a fee-for-service system may be socially desirable. It is these very severe diseases where the capitation system seems to induce negative welfare effects with respect to the technologically feasible boundary of treatment. Cost sharing/capitation systems are most suitable for treatments where a reduction of the amount of health care consumed is desirable.”

While the solution Selder proposes is logical, it does not take into account the cost to the state to collect information regarding these disease classes. Lobbying will likely influence whether a given treatment falls into the fee-for-service or cost-sharing grouping. Nevertheless, Selder’s general findings seems reasonable and applicable to the medical care finance design in the real world.

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