Charges and reimbursement at a rural level I trauma center: a disparity between effort and reward among professionals

J Trauma. 2003 Jan;54(1):9-14; discussion 14-5. doi: 10.1097/00005373-200301000-00002.


Background: A Level I trauma center must provide immediate availability general (trauma) surgical expertise. In the current practice few patients require a general surgical procedure. The expertise of subspecialists may also be required and frequently these patients will require subspecialty operative care. We hypothesized that trauma surgeons would receive less reimbursement than their subspecialty colleagues despite a greater commitment of time and effort in taking care of the multiply-injured patient.

Methods: Three fellowship trained trauma surgeons were specifically hired to cover the trauma service for the year 2000. Professional billings, contribution to margin (reimbursement minus direct costs) of the trauma surgeons and subspecialists were obtained from the hospital financial information system. A surrogate for effort was assessed by the number of attending notes in the chart. A surrogate for complexity of care was assessed by the length of notes in the chart. Weekly time sheets assessed the percentage of time involved in the care of trauma patients.

Results: There were 344 patients cared for exclusively on the trauma service for the year 2000. The billing generated per patient was $1005 for the trauma surgeon, $5904 for the subspecialists, and $27,554 for the hospital. Orthopedics and radiology generated more professional billing on the trauma patients than the trauma surgeons. The trauma surgeons spent 52% of their weekly clinical activity in the care of trauma patients, yet this activity accounted for only 16% of their billings (the rest came from general surgery and ICU care). The effort and complexity of care provided by the trauma surgeons was significantly greater than the subspecialists.

Conclusion: The Level I trauma service is a conduit for patients coming into the hospital that provides a significant remuneration to the subspecialty services. Trauma surgeons are able to bill much less than many of their subspecialty colleagues despite expending significantly greater amounts of time and effort in the care of these patients. Strategies for improved reimbursement for trauma surgeons must be devised or trauma surgery will suffer the same fate as other areas of surgery, losing our brightest and best to more financially sound subspecialty services such as radiology and orthopedics.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Career Choice
  • Direct Service Costs / statistics & numerical data
  • Fees, Medical / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Services Research
  • Hospital Charges / statistics & numerical data*
  • Hospital Mortality
  • Hospitals, Rural / economics*
  • Humans
  • Injury Severity Score
  • Insurance, Health, Reimbursement / statistics & numerical data*
  • Length of Stay / statistics & numerical data
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / economics*
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / education
  • Motivation
  • Multiple Trauma / economics
  • Multiple Trauma / mortality
  • Relative Value Scales
  • Time Factors
  • Trauma Centers / economics*
  • Traumatology / economics*
  • Traumatology / education
  • Vermont / epidemiology
  • Workload / economics