Objective: To determine whether managed care controls were associated with reduced access to specialists and worse outcomes among primary care patients with pain.
Data sources/study setting: Patient, physician, and office manager questionnaires collected in the Seattle area in 1996-1997, plus data abstracted from patient records and health plans.
Study design: A prospective cohort study of 2,275 adult patients with common pain problems recruited in the offices of 261 primary care physicians in Seattle.
Data collection: Patients completed a waiting room questionnaire and follow-up surveys at the end of the first and sixth months to measure access to specialists and outcomes. Intensity of managed care controls measured by plan managed care index and benefit/cost-sharing indexes, office managed care index, physician compensation, financial incentives, and use of clinical guidelines.
Principal findings: A financial withhold for referral was associated with a lower likelihood of referral to a physician specialist, a greater likelihood of seeing a specialist without referral, and a lower patient rating of care from the primary physician. Otherwise, patients in more managed offices and with greater out-of-network plan benefits had greater access to specialists. Patients with more versus less managed care had similar health outcomes, but patients in more managed offices had lower ratings of care provided by their primary physicians.
Conclusions: Increased managed care controls were generally not associated with reduced access to specialists and worse health outcomes for primary care patients with pain, but patients in more managed offices had lower ratings of care provided by their primary physicians.