Regional variations in health care intensity and physician perceptions of quality of care

Ann Intern Med. 2006 May 2;144(9):641-9. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-144-9-200605020-00007.


Background: Research has documented dramatic differences in health care utilization and spending across U.S. regions with similar levels of patient illness. Although patient outcomes and quality of care have been found to be no better in regions of high health care intensity, it is unknown whether physicians in these regions feel more capable of providing good patient care than those in low-intensity regions.

Objective: To determine whether physicians in high-intensity regions feel better able to care for patients than physicians in low-intensity regions.

Design: Physician telephone survey.

Setting: 51 metropolitan and 9 nonmetropolitan areas of the United States and a supplemental national sample.

Participants: 10,577 physicians who provided care to adults in 1998 or 1999 were surveyed for the Community Tracking Study (response rate, 61%).

Measurements: The End-of-Life Expenditure Index, a measure of spending that reflects differences in the overall quantity of medical services provided rather than differences in illness or price, was used to determine health care intensity in the physicians' community. Outcomes included physicians' perceived availability of clinical services, ability to provide high-quality care to patients, and career satisfaction.

Results: Although the highest-intensity regions have substantially more hospital beds and specialists per capita, physicians in these regions reported more difficulty obtaining needed services for their patients. The proportion of physicians who felt able to obtain elective hospital admissions ranged from 50% in high-intensity regions to 64% in the lowest-intensity region (P < 0.001 for the relationship between intensity and perceived ability to obtain hospital admissions); the proportion of physicians who felt able to obtain high-quality specialist referrals ranged from 64% in high-intensity regions to 79% in low-intensity regions (P < 0.001). Compared with low-intensity regions, fewer physicians in high-intensity regions felt able to maintain good ongoing patient relationships (range, 62% to 70%; P < 0.001) or able to provide high-quality care (range, 72% to 77%; P = 0.009). In most cases, differences persisted but were attenuated in magnitude after adjustment for physician attributes, practice characteristics, and local market factors (for example, managed care penetration); the difference in perceived ability to provide high-quality care was no longer statistically significant (P = 0.099).

Limitations: The cross-sectional design prevented demonstration of a causal relationship between intensity and physician perceptions of quality.

Conclusion: Despite more resources, physicians in regions of high health care intensity did not report greater ease in obtaining needed services or greater ability to provide high-quality care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Delivery of Health Care / economics*
  • Delivery of Health Care / standards*
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Health Expenditures*
  • Health Services Accessibility / economics
  • Health Services Accessibility / standards
  • Humans
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Medicare / economics
  • Medicare / standards
  • Patient Admission / economics
  • Patient Admission / standards
  • Physicians*
  • Referral and Consultation / economics
  • Referral and Consultation / standards
  • United States