Blog | Thursday, January 21, 2016

The real reason infectious disease docs are the lowest paid physicians

In keeping with our annual tradition, Dan recently posted on the declining interest in ID fellowship slots filled through the match. Re-reading his 2013 and 2014 posts, it's quite clear things have not improved. It's also clear that IDSA takes the decline very seriously. In fact, 2 IDSA presidents, Dr. Stephen Calderwood and Dr. Johan Bakken, have taken time to post IDSA's diagnosis and responses to the public health problem. Both described the relatively poor compensation provided for ID services.

Quoting Dr. Bakken: ”There is no question in my mind that the financial student loan burden and inadequate reimbursement for ID services are major disincentives for young physicians contemplating a career in ID. IDSA alone does not have the power or means to rectify the problem, but we are working very hard with legislators and policy makers on Capitol Hill.”

Without getting too much into the weeds, I wanted to share with you why I think Infectious Diseases is so poorly reimbursed compared to every other subspecialty. The reason is as old as politics. We have no representation on the AMA's Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC). Since 1991, CMS has collected advice from this AMA Committee on how much “physician work” is involved in delivering a particular service. This committee is important, since CMS agrees with the committee's recommendations almost90% of the time. There is unequal and unfair representation on this committee. Some specialties are under-represented based on the number of services they provide (i.e. primary care) and certain medical subspecialties (e.g. nephrology, hematology) are only represented on a rotating basis while others (e.g. cardiology) have a permanent seat. Looking closely at the list of subspecialties, I don't see any Infectious Diseases representation!

So, if we want to fix ID, we need permanent representation on this committee. It is a complete travesty that the highly reimbursed procedure-focused subspecialties are fully represented but the “cognitive” subspecialties (endocrinology, ID, rheumatology) are invisible. IDSA needs to demand equal and fair representation.

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). This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.