Thursday, May 7, 2009
Your Thoughts Exactly: Handling patients who can't afford to pay
With the economy uncertain and unemployment rising, ACP Internist readers reported they are facing patients in their offices who are ill, but unable to pay for health care. The situation has left many physicians with the unexpected dilemma of how to treat such patients while also trying to manage a practice. Or worse, patients may not seek health care at all, an option suspected by virtually all respondents in our latest poll, Your Thoughts Exactly: Caring for unemployed/uninsured patients.
Results were collected anonymously throughout April. The results are not scientific and do not reflect any ACP policy, and are reported for their news value only.
When faced with a patient who was unemployed, uninsured or otherwise unable to pay, physicians fell back on a few options:
When faced with a patient who was unemployed, uninsured or otherwise unable to pay, physicians fell back on a few options:
Options (respondents could choose more than one; n=73)
- I've offered free care or reduced payments. 66.7%
- I've offered free samples for prescriptions. 61.1%
- I've referred them to community clinics. 34.7%
- I've reduced or eliminated co-pays. 18.1%
- I've deferred billing. 16.7%
- I've had to refuse care to delinquent patients. 6.9%
- I've let the front desk handle it. 6.9%
Among those who offered other options, hospitalists who responded are generally able to refer to their own facilities. One reported, "As a hospitalist I try to take care of them as I do the others ... but I have the devil's own time getting consultants to see them, and arranging outpatient follow-up is often difficult or impossible."
Another respondent said, "I have the luxury of practicing in an academic setting where most of these decisions are made for me. I would hate to be faced with the situation of not providing care due to inability to pay. I can say that since our institution has implemented a co-pay policy, attendance at our resident teaching clinics has fallen off dramatically. I see a future where residents graduate with even less ambulatory care experience than they're already getting."
Office-based practitioners are setting up payment plans, steering patients toward low-cost or no-cost generic options through their local chain pharmacy or grocery. A few have some sort of sliding scale for payments; others suggested downcoding services, even comprehensive exams, so the overall cost would be less.
"I provide them information on how to shop for their prescriptions, explain the excessive cost of needless over-the-counter products, attempt to keep the costs of tests and other health care to a minimum, refer to the physicians who will provide the same level of care and concern that I have whenever possible; I also refer to the state."
Many are referring to local support groups or working at free clinics--in one case the doctor opened a free clinic. Many physicians are doing more chronic care management by phone, which as one person said, "I have done it in previous recessions."
Nearly all (72 of 73 doctors, or 98.6%) said that they know or suspect their patients are skipping needed care, while the other respondent replied he or she wasn't sure. Among the patients suspected of skipping care, they were thought to be rationing medications or not coming back for follow-ups. "I suspect this is a much bigger problem than any physician actually knows about," one physician added.
One doctor suggested a way to prevent losing patients to follow-up: "Be sensitive to proud patients who do not want to admit they are having financial troubles."
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Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.
Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.
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Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).
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Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.
Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.
Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.
Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.
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David Katz, MD
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Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.
Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.
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Other blogs of note:
American Journal of
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.
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The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.