How PCPs Are Penalized For Positive Outcomes From Lifestyle Change


                                                        By Padmaja Patel, MD

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) 2022 National Quality Strategy is described as an "ambitious long-term initiative that aims to promote the highest quality outcomes and safest care for all individuals." The strategy calls for a multidisciplinary, person-centric approach for individuals throughout the continuum of care, with an emphasis on historically underresourced communities. It is a commendable goal for an overburdened US healthcare system that spends more than other high-income counties yet experiences poorer outcomes. But whole-person, person-centered care cannot be achieved under current misaligned quality measures that fail to measure what we purport to value: the quintuple aim of improved health outcomes, cost savings, patient satisfaction, clinician well-being, and health equity.

Lifestyle First

Clinical practice guidelines for many chronic diseases recommend lifestyle intervention as the first and optimal treatment. A growing body of evidence supports lifestyle behavior interventions to treat and, when used intensively, even reverse common chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, while also providing effective prevention for those conditions. However, no current quality measures consider lifestyle interventions. In fact, some quality measures unintentionally penalize physicians for successfully treating or reversing disease through lifestyle behavior interventions while rewarding clinicians for meeting process measures — usually adherence to medication — regardless of whether health outcomes improved.

Rewarding medication adherence for the treatment of diseases in which lifestyle is a primary therapy (such as hypertension), combined with other healthcare constraints (lack of lifestyle education, time to spend with patients, and infrastructure support) incentivizes physicians to skip the conversation about lifestyle changes and go straight to medication prescription. Meanwhile, the clinician who takes the extra time to guide a patient toward lifestyle interventions that could treat their current disease and prevent future diseases — without side effects — is penalized.

Misaligned quality measures like these can stifle clinical judgement and risk reducing the practice of medicine to mindless box-checking. In many cases, patients are not even informed that lifestyle behavior change may be a treatment option (much less the first recommended option) for their conditions. This delivery of care is not person-centered and, in fact, may raise questions about the adequacy of informed treatment consent.

Reimbursement Barriers

Lifestyle medicine is a growing medical specialty that uses therapeutic lifestyle interventions as a primary modality to treat chronic conditions. Since certification began in 2017, almost 2500 US physicians and 1000 nonphysician health professionals have earned certification. Health systems, including the US military, are increasingly integrating lifestyle medicine. There have been advancements since one survey found that more than half of lifestyle medicine clinicians reported receiving no reimbursement for lifestyle behavior interventions. However, barriers, especially in fee-for-service systems, still inhibit many patients from receiving insurance coverage for comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and whole-person treatments called intensive therapeutic lifestyle change (ITLC) programs.

Existing comprehensive lifestyle programs that patients are eligible for (ie, the Diabetes Prevention Program and intensive behavioral therapy) are often so poorly reimbursed that clinicians and health systems decline to offer them. An example of a well-reimbursed ITLC program is intensive cardiac rehabilitation (ICR), which remains underutilized and limited to a narrow segment of patients, despite ICR's proven benefits for managing comorbid risk factors such as A1c and weight. Even when lifestyle intervention programs are available and patients are eligible to participate (often through shared medical appointments), patient copays for the frequent visits required to achieve and sustain behavior change — or the lack of reimbursement for interdisciplinary team members — discourage engagement.

Penalizing Successful Outcomes

Despite the fact that lifestyle behaviors are top contributors to health and, conversely, contribute to up to 80% of chronic diseases, few quality measures focus on screening for lifestyle factors or treating diseases with lifestyle interventions. An example of an existing quality measure is screening or treatment for harmful substance use.

Specific quality measures that penalize lifestyle medicine approaches include pharmacotherapy for type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, osteoporosis, and gout as well as approaches to rheumatoid arthritis.

Statins offer a useful example of the conundrum faced by clinicians who want to offer lifestyle interventions. A lifestyle medicine primary care physician had a patient covered by Medicare Advantage who was diagnosed with hyperlipidemia. The patient had total cholesterol of 226 and a triglycerides level of 132. Instead of prescribing the routine statin, the physician prescribed lifestyle behavior modifications. Within 3 weeks, the patient's total cholesterol improved to 171 and triglycerides to 75. This was a great success for the delighted patient. However, the CMS 5-Star Rating System assigned the primary care physician a grade of C rather than A, which put the physician's 5-star rating at risk. Why? Because the system bases its score largely on medication compliance. The physician was penalized despite achieving the optimal health outcome, and at a lower cost than with medication. This misalignment does not incentivize patient-centered care because it disregards patient preference, shared decision-making, and evidence-based practice.

Risk Adjustment

Rather than automatically managing disease with ever-increasing quantities of costly medications and procedures, lifestyle medicine clinicians first pursue a goal of health restoration when appropriate. But Medicare risk adjustment incentivizes physicians to manage rather than reverse disease. How much Medicare pays health plans is determined in part by how sick the patients are; the sicker the patient, the more Medicare pays, because those patients' costs are expected to be higher. This ensures that health plans are not penalized for enrolling sicker patients. But a physician utilizing diet alone to achieve remission in a patient with type 2 diabetes is penalized financially because, when the risk is adjusted, diabetes is no longer listed among the patient's conditions. So, Medicare pays the physician less money. That misalignment incentivizes clinicians to manage the symptoms of type 2 diabetes rather than achieve remission, despite remission being the ideal clinical outcome.

Realigning Quality Measures

Quality measures were developed to quantify healthcare processes and outcomes, and to ensure the delivery of safe care to all patients. However, over time the number of quality measures has swelled to 2500, evolving into a confusing, time-consuming, and even soul-crushing responsibility for the physician.

Instead of relying heavily on process measures, we must incentivize outcome measures that honor patient autonomy and allow clinicians to offer lifestyle intervention as the first line of treatment. Risk-score calculations should be adjusted so that we stop incentivizing disease management and penalizing disease reversal.

CMS's proposed development of "a universal foundation" of quality measures is an opportunity to begin the realignment of quality measures and values. This foundation is intended to establish more consistent and meaningful measures, reduce clinician burnout by streamlining the reporting process, and advance health equity. For this change to be successful, it is vital that lifestyle behavior interventions — optimal nutrition, physical activity, restorative sleep, social connections, stress management, and avoidance of harmful substances — become the foundation of universal quality measures. This will ensure that every clinician is incentivized to discuss lifestyle behaviors with patients and pursue the first clinical step recommended by clinical practice guidelines for most chronic diseases. Only then can we truly deliver high-value, whole-person, person-centered care and achieve the quintuple aim.


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    • Editor-in Chief:
    • Theodore Massey
    • Editor:
    • Robert Sokonow
    • Editorial Staff:
    • Musaba Dekau
      Lin Takahashi
      Thomas Levine
      Cynthia Casteneda Avina
      Ronald Harvinger
      Lisa Andonis

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