Physician Conceptions of Responsibility to Individual Patients and Distributive Justice in Health Care

Published in: Annals of Family Medicine, v. 3, no. 1, Jan./Feb. 2005, p. 53-59

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2005

by Mary Catherine Beach, Lisa S. Meredith, Jodi Halpern, Kenneth B. Wells, Daniel Ford

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PURPOSE: Physicians' values may be shifting under managed care, but there have been no empirical data to support this claim. The authors describe physician conceptions of responsibility to individual patients and distributive justice in health care, and explore whether these values are associated with type of managed care practice and professional satisfaction. METHODS: They mailed a questionnaire to 500 primary care physicians from 80 outpatient clinics in 11 managed care organizations (MCOs) who were participating in 4 studies designed to improve the quality of depression care in primary care. RESULTS: The authors received 414 responses (response rate 83%). Twenty-eight percent of physicians strongly agreed that their main responsibility was to the individual patient rather than to society (strong sense of responsibility to individual patients). Physicians with a strong sense of responsibility to individual patients were older (43% of physicians older than 50 years reported a strong sense of responsibility to individual patients, compared with 26% of physicians aged 36 to 50 years, and 21% of physicians younger than 35 years, P = .009) and tended to practice in network- rather than staff-model MCOs (33% of physicians in network-model MCOs reported a strong sense of responsibility to individual patients compared with 24% in staff-model MCOs, P = .077). Scores on a scale measuring egalitarian conceptions of distributive justice within the health care system were similar for physicians regardless of whether they reported a strong sense of responsibility to individual patients. When the authors controlled for physician and practice characteristics, physicians with a strong sense of responsibility to individual patients and physicians with higher scores on an egalitarian scale were more likely to be very satisfied overall with their practices (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 2.23, 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.11-4.49, and AOR = 1.18, 95% CI, 1.09-1.29, respectively). CONCLUSIONS: Physicians with a strong sense of responsibility to individual patients are older and less likely to practice in staff-model MCOs. Stronger commitment to an egalitarian health care system and a strong sense of responsibility to individual patients are independently associated with greater practice satisfaction among physicians. The impact of these values on patient care should be a priority for future research and the subject of professional education and debate.

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