Background: In order to limit costs, health care organizations in the United States are shifting medical care from specialists to primary care physicians. Although primary care physicians provide less resource-intensive care, there is little information concerning the effects of this strategy on outcomes.
Methods: We examined mortality according to the specialty of the admitting physician among 8241 Medicare patients who were hospitalized for acute myocardial infarction in four states during a seven-month period in 1992. Proportional-hazards regression models were used to examine survival up to one year after the myocardial infarction. To determine the generalizability of our findings, we also examined insurance claims and survival data for all 220,535 patients for whom there were Medicare claims for hospital care for acute myocardial infarction in 1992.
Results: After adjustment for characteristics of the patients and hospitals, patients who were admitted to the hospital by a cardiologist were 12 percent less likely to die within one year than those admitted by a primary care physician (P<0.001). Cardiologists also had the highest rate of use of cardiac procedures and medications, including medications (such as thrombolytic agents and beta-blockers) that are associated with improved survival.
Conclusions: Health care strategies that shift the care of elderly patients with myocardial infarction from cardiologists to primary care physicians lower rates of use of resources (and potentially lower costs), but they may also cause decreased survival. Additional information is needed to elucidate how primary care physicians and specialists should interact in the care of severely ill patients.