Paying doctors in small practices bonuses for the quality of care they provide leads to a modest increase in the number of patients who get the recommended treatment for their conditions, according to a new study.
Researchers found that doctors who received bonuses had more patients receiving recommended medications, having their blood pressure under control and being given tools to help them stop smoking, compared to doctors not receiving bonuses.
"Payment structures can help people focus on preventive care elements in a setting where patients are sick and there are a lot things going on," Dr. Naomi Bardach, the study's lead author from University of California, San Francisco, said.
The hope would be that focusing on preventive measures, such as blood pressure and cholesterol, would lead to better health for patients and ultimately save money over several years.
Most studies looking at doctor bonuses were conducted in large healthcare systems, but most Americans get their care from offices run by only a handful of doctors, write Bardach and her colleagues in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
For the new study, they randomized 84 small, New York City medical practices that were using electronic medical records to one of two groups, which were followed between April 2009 and March 2010.
One group of 42 practices received bonuses for each patient who was appropriately prescribed aspirin, prescribed a smoking cessation treatment and had their blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
The bonuses did not exceed $200 per patient.
The other 42 practices didn't receive bonuses, but did get quarterly performance reports - as did the practices that received bonuses.
The average characteristics of each practice - such as patients' ages, sex and insurance - were not different between the two groups.
At the end of the study, all practices in the study increased the percentage of patients who met the guidelines, but those people seeing doctors who received bonuses were more likely to be getting guideline-based care than those in the practices without bonuses.
For example, between 53 and 54 percent of patients in all practices were receiving appropriate aspirin therapy at the beginning of the study. That increased to 61 percent in the practices not receiving incentives and about 65 percent in practices that got bonuses.
The proportion of patients with controlled blood pressure increased to about 62 percent in practices receiving bonuses from about 52 percent at the start. That compared to about a 4 percentage point increase in the