Objective: Controversy surrounds the cost-effectiveness of rheumatologist care compared with generalist care for patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Rheumatologists can provide 2 distinct types of care for RA patients: primary care and specialist care. We sought to examine the relationship between cost and type of care in a population-based cohort of patients with RA.
Methods: Data regarding specialty of care and use of health services (i.e., total direct medical costs, surgeries, radiographs, laboratory tests, hospital days) were collected from a community sample of 249 patients with RA (defined using the 1987 American College of Rheumatology diagnostic criteria) among Rochester, Minnesota residents > or =35 years of age. In a randomly selected subset of 99 of these RA patients, detailed information on all physician encounters was collected and categorized according to whether or not the care received constituted "primary care" according to the Institute of Medicine definition. Using these data, we evaluated the influence of type of care as well as specialty of provider on utilization. For these analyses, total direct costs included all inpatient and outpatient health care costs incurred by all local providers (excluding outpatient prescription drugs).
Results: The 249 patients with RA (mean age 64 years, 75% women) were followed up for a median of 5.4 years, while the subset of 99 RA patients (mean age 64 years, 77% women) were followed up for a median of 4.7 years. The overall median direct medical costs per person per year were $2,749 and $2,929 for the total cohort and for the subset of 99 patients, respectively. Generalized linear regression analyses (considering all visits of the 249 RA patients) revealed that after adjusting for demographics and disease characteristics, rheumatologist care (compared with nonrheumatologist care) was not associated with higher total direct medical costs (P = 0.85) or more hospital days (P = 0.35), but was associated with slightly more radiographs (P = 0.037) and significantly more laboratory tests (P < 0.0001). When considering only primary care, such care by rheumatologists was, again, not associated with higher total direct medical costs (P = 0.11) or more hospital days (P = 0.69) or more laboratory tests (P = 0.54), but was associated with slightly more radiographs (P = 0.035).
Conclusion: Rheumatologist care is not more costly than generalist care for patients with RA. Important differences (especially in the use of laboratory tests) become apparent when the type of care provided as well as the specialty of the provider are considered in the analyses.