16 October 2017
Dr Ayman Shenouda
What really lies ahead?
While the impending changes from the Redesigning the Practice Incentives Program (PIP) still looms over us, among this deafening silence there’s concern around what lies ahead. It’s not so much the proposed changes to the PIP but more the underlying policy consequences in terms of broader payment reform and control over the profession.
The fee-for-service payment system remains the predominant commonwealth funding mechanism that assists patients to access primary care. The system is not well aligned to address chronic disease management and the complex health issues of our aging patient population. There is a need to find an optimal mix in addressing current need and future demand. We need funding mechanisms to tackle both complex chronic conditions and issues around disadvantage. Key is the priority shift toward improved patient outcomes and value, not just volume of service.
Key questions remain around what a value based primary health care system will look like. It will no doubt involve extensions of bureaucratic controls used to regulate professional practice with potential impacts on professional autonomy.
Health payment reform
The Government has not been shy in terms of its core focus on health payment reform in securing broader fiscal sustainability. However, in finding solutions, the policy jam seems well and truly fixed on finding savings from within one sector – from within primary care – despite it already being largely cost efficient.
Aspects of primary care payment reform alongside structural reforms are already being tested. The Health Care Homes’ voluntary trial, the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review and to some extent the Primary Health Networks (PHNs) are key examples. These shifts have been occurring for some time and this latest redesign targeting PIP signals some further key changes.
The PIP redesign will see, even more, conditions imposed on general practice with an apparent shift toward imposing more funding controls through increased reporting. The policy lens again is on general practice where Medicare spending is value for money. Is this same focus being applied to the broader medical specialties? Driving prices down to regulate perceived skill based premiums might just bring some equity back into the discussion.
The QI measure
The key aim of the PIP is to support general practice activities in recognition of comprehensive, quality care. It provides a blended payment approach for general practices in addition to fee-for-service income. We know the most significant reform will be from the Quality Improvement (QI) measure which will require practices to collect full datasets alongside individualised targets for improvement.
The issue around who sets these targets is still a little unclear – self-selected or enforced. However, if the aim is to capture specifics of a practice’s patient population then I would suggest that the practice takes the lead here, not the bureaucracy. This in some way formalises a broader population health framework approach. This is positive but does a new QI measure involving data capture really provide the best way forward?
The rationale is around the use of data to measure and drive improvement. And certainly, no one is arguing that quality data on outcomes has not been lacking. Clearly, it has had its limitations and one would be around funding commitment to evaluation.
The long-term aim of the redesign is said to be around assisting practices to participate in quality improvement processes. Payments will be tiered to how this data has been used in terms of improvement measures. Those PIPs likely to be removed may well have already captured this detail. Data collection software storage adds a cost for practices but some already have these management systems in place, although not standardised.
There are two key issues here, the first around maintaining data integrity given practices will be required to upload quarterly electronic data to a third-party (probably PHNs) QI provider. The second is broader intent which sees a likely shift towards a pay-for-performance scheme.
Maintaining clinical autonomy
Data control is, in fact, a real issue here. Maintaining data integrity given practices will be required to upload quarterly electronic data to a third-party QI provider is one clear risk. Although utilising the PHNs as a vehicle for change could be beneficial it will require a partnership approach. They will need to further engage with GPs to establish the required trust and make sure they don’t encroach on clinical autonomy. Broader organisations who already do evaluation well and are trusted by the profession should also be brought in. Overall, GPs must remain free, within the parameters of evidence-based care, to make decisions that affect the clinical care they provide, rather than having these decisions imposed upon them.
There seems a move here towards a pay-for-performance scheme which in itself is problematic. Combined with an added data task resulting in more paperwork for GPs these requirements will risk taking our focus from patient care. Most practices have clinical risk management systems in place to analyse weak points and improve patient care. The PIP redesign consultation paper states that there is emerging evidence around a need for regionally-based change management to embed a quality improvement culture in general practice. This implies that GPs are inactive in this area when in fact the profession values and drives many of its own quality improvement measures.
There are already measures in place to support practices in undertaking QI activities. The RACGP QI&PD services offer a wealth of quality improvement tools and guides including clinical audit mechanisms. The College has developed a set of 14 clinical indicators to deal exclusively with the safety and quality of clinical care provided by Australian general practices.
Important unmeasurable factors
It is important to recognise that not everything can be measured. While clinical and organisational measures can be captured, there are other aspects of care important for healthcare quality which prove more problematic. Continuity of care and ease of access to care are unlikely to be captured in a neat format for the PIP QI measure. While attractive to funders pay-for-performance programs may not improve health outcomes or improve system quality. They have the potential to worsen overall care quality as focusing just on measurable outcomes takes us away from holistic general practice.
There is a much larger shift which needs to occur here and it won’t be achieved through a pay-for-performance system. In transforming health, we need to shift from reactive to proactive and predictive care. Early identification is the only way we can control rising chronic disease rates but our system relies on patient contact when they present with noticeable symptoms. Often this is just too late. We need a system which can take us across the spectrum of preventive care - from healthy to chronically ill -and priority measures for what falls between - for those at risk - to allow us to intervene early enough.
Finding the right mix for payment reform might involve encompassing bundled payments alongside some capitation. The latter being voluntary. The fee-for-service payment system should remain the primary source of funding for general practice services. While very tempting for Government, stable controllable costs should not dictate here. It is the patient that should remain the focus. More measures addressing out of pocket costs for GP services are needed.
The paradigm shift from a reactive sick care system towards a proactive and predictive healthcare model still seems a distant hope. While we’ve started the transition to restrain the demand for acute services through more focus on preventive care, finding that balance of funding for both acute and preventive care is not easy. This shift will bring about payment reform which can drive significant change for a more sustainable health care system and provide for a healthier future.
A preventive care PIP could have been brought in as part of this latest redesign as a way to boost funding and encourage new ways of working, yet that opportunity has not been pursued. Regardless, the new proposed PIP QI measure should only be undertaken initially as a trial. This could occur alongside the Healthcare Homes’ voluntary trial. The PIP measure needs to be contained to a sample location to truly test its capacity to deliver what it claims, rather than bring unnecessary disruption to practices through national release.
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