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Journal editorial: Pay-for-performance a faulty policy in medicine

Programs that reward doctors and hospitals for hitting certain quality targets are being rolled out in Massachusetts and across the country. A major focus of the health care law signed by Governor Deval Patrick last week is that doctors should be paid for keeping patients healthy, rather than for the volume of tests or treatments they order. Yet, several recent publications question whether pay-for-performance systems actually lead to better care for patients.

The programs are meant to push doctors to think about a patient's overall care and to consistently do things that are thought to improve health outcomes, such as give appropriate counseling to people with heart conditions or timely antibiotic treatment to people with pneumonia.


A review of seven studies of primary care programs that paid doctors extra for meeting certain targets, published by the Cochrane Collaboration in September, was inconclusive about the effect on quality of care. "Implementation should proceed with caution," the authors wrote.

A study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a large Medicare pilot program that paid providers more if they met certain process targets -- and docked pay for those who did poorly -- did not reduce short-term patient mortality rates. A version of the program is being rolled out nationally. The authors of the paper called the results "sobering."

In an editorial published Tuesday in BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal, two public health professors and a best-selling author in the field of behavior economics explain why they think paying doctors more based on quality metrics is inherently problematic.

Hospitals and doctors can easily change their reporting practices to improve their quality scores, they wrote. And financial incentives can undermine doctors' intrinsic desire to help their patients, Drs. David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler, both professors at City University of New York and visiting professors at Harvard, and Duke University Professor Dan Ariely wrote.


Himmelstein and Woolhandler are long-time advocates for a national health system. Ariely is an author of several books, including The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty.

"Incentives may mutate honesty into legal trickery; gaming can so thoroughly distort reality that rewards become uncoupled from performance," they wrote.

The idea that people will be motivated to do better if they are paid more as a result may seem like common sense, but medicine is complex, Himmelstein said. Often the measures used to determine success do not match the conditions of care or patient outcomes the program is meant to address, he said. The editorial points to trouble the government has faced in accurately measuring avoidable readmissions, when patients return to the hospital soon after being discharged because they do not receive the appropriate follow-up care.

Himmelstein said other fields have struggled with pay-for-performance programs. Under national education policy, schools that score poorly on standardized tests receive less funding.

"They're the ones who need it most," Himmelstein said. "Is the right reaction to poor quality that those institutions need fewer resources, not more?"

The editorial accompanied a paper by Australian researchers outlining criteria that quality standards should meet in order to be used in a pay-for-performance program, starting with whether the metric actually results in better health for patients.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.