Survey: U.S. physicians lag behind those in other countries in IT use

By Bernie Monegain
09:55 AM

U.S. doctors are far less likely to use health information technology that helps reduce errors and improve care than those in other countries, according to the 2009 Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey.

Published online today in the journal Health Affairs, the survey finds that only 46 percent of U.S. doctors use electronic medical records, compared to 99 percent of doctors in the Netherlands and 97 percent of doctors in New Zealand and Norway.

Many of the areas in which the United States lags would be addressed by health reform legislation currently under consideration in Congress, according to Commonwealth Fund officials.

"We spend far more than any of the other countries in the survey, yet a majority of U.S. primary care doctors say their patients often can't afford care, and a wide majority of primary care physicians don't have advanced computer systems to access patient test results, anticipate and avoid medication errors or support care for chronically ill patients," said Commonwealth Fund Senior Vice President Cathy Schoen, lead author of the article.

"The patient-centered chronic care model originated in the U.S., yet other countries are moving forward faster to support care teams including nurses, spending time with patients, and assuring access to after-hours," she added. "The study underscores the pressing need for national reforms to close the performance gap to improve outcomes and reduce costs."

The survey of more than 10,000 primary care physicians in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States describes a U.S. primary care system that is under stress and highlights areas where the nation can learn from other countries.

Notably, the United States could use financial incentives to improve quality and efficiency, expand access to healthcare and simplify insurance, expand the use of health information technology to prevent medical errors, and use a medical home approach to primary care where patients have options for care at any time of day or night, teams of healthcare providers to manage conditions and continuity of care.

"Access barriers, lack of information and inadequate financial support for preventive and chronic care undermine primary care doctors' efforts to provide timely, high quality care and put the U.S. far behind what many other countries are able to achieve," said Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis. "Our weak primary care system puts patients at risk and results in poorer health outcomes and higher costs. The survey provides yet another reminder of the urgent need for reforms that make accessible, high-quality primary care a national priority."

Survey highlights on next page...


Survey Highlights:

  • Access and Barriers to Care – 58 percent of U.S. physicians report their patients often have difficulty paying for medications or other out-of-pocket costs, compared to between 5 percent and 37 percent in other countries. U.S. physicians are also four times as likely as physicians in Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden and the U.K. to report major problems with the time they or their staff spend getting patients needed medication or treatment due to insurance coverage restrictions. About half (48 percent) of U.S. physicians report this is a major problem, compared to just 6 percent in the U.K. Twenty-eight percent of U.S. doctors report their patients often face long waits to see a specialist – a rate similar to that reported by Australian (35 percent) and U.K. (22 percent) physicians, the lowest rates in the survey. Three-quarters of Canadian and Italian physicians reported long waits.
  • After-Hours Care Outside the Emergency Room – Most U.S. primary care doctors say they have no arrangement for access to care after normal office hours except for directing patients to a hospital emergency room. Just 29 percent of U.S. doctors have an arrangement for patients to see a doctor or nurse after hours, a drop from 40 percent in the 2006 Commonwealth Fund survey. In contrast, 97 precent of doctors in the Netherlands and 89 percent of those in New Zealand and the U.K report after-hour provisions, as do more than three of four doctors in France (78 percent) and Italy (77 percent).
  • Health Information Technology – While 46 percent of U.S. primary care doctors report using EMRs – up from 28 percent in 2006 – they and their Canadian counterparts lag well behind the Netherlands (99 percent), New Zealand (97 percent), the U.K. (96 percent), Australia (95 percent), Italy (94 percent), Norway (97 percent),and Sweden (94 percent).
  • Financial Incentives to Improve Quality – Every country in the survey, to some degree, uses financial incentives to improve primary care, preventive care, or disease management. Primary care physicians in the United States, however, are among the least likely to report that they receive financial incentives for quality improvement, such as bonuses for achieving high patient satisfaction ratings, increasing preventive care, use of teams or managing patients with chronic disease or complex needs. Only one-third of U.S. physicians reported receiving any financial incentives for the six quality improvement measures in the survey. Rates were also low in Sweden and Norway. In contrast, significant majorities of doctors in the U.K (89 percent), the Netherlands (81 percent), New Zealand (80 percent), Italy (70 percent) and Australia (65 percent) report some type of extra financial incentive or target support to improve primary care capacity.
  • Use of Care Teams and Systems to Care for Patients with Chronic Illness –Teams that include health professionals such as nurses serve an important role in managing care, especially for chronic conditions. The survey results indicate that use of teams is widespread in Sweden (98 percent), the U.K, (98 percent), the Netherlands (91 percent), Australia (88 percent), New Zealand (88 percent), Germany (73 percent) and Norway (73 percent), but much lower in the United States (59 percent), Canada (52 percent) and France (11 percent). Only in Italy did more than half of physicians (63 percent) say they routinely provide written instructions to chronically ill patients for managing care at home.
  • Quality Reporting and Feedback – Many countries have been investing in information on performance to provide incentive and benchmarks. The authors note that "information that peers have met with success is often instrumental to guide and drive innovation." Asked about comparative information systems, doctors in the U.K. are most likely to routinely receive and review data on clinical outcomes (89 percent), followed by Sweden (71 percent), New Zealand (68 percent) and the Netherlands (65 percent). Less than half of doctors in other surveyed countries – including the U.S. at 43 percent – report such reviews. U.K physicians (65 percent) were by far the most likely to report they receive data on how they compare to other practices and, along with Sweden and New Zealand doctors, the most likely to have information on patient experiences. Notably, U.S. doctors lagged well behind these leading countries on feedback on both clinical quality and patient experiences.
  • Tracking Medical Errors –The study finds that half or more primary care doctors in Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands report not yet having a process to identify "adverse events" and take action. Just one in five U.S. primary care physicians say they have a process that works well to identify risks and take follow-up actions; one-third said they have no process. At 56 percent, U.K. physicians were most likely to say they have processes they think work well, followed by Sweden (41 percent), New Zealand (32 percent) and Australia (32 percent).

The authors conclude that national policies have been instrumental in achieving round-the-clock access, information systems and advance primary care teams in leading countries. They note that "overall, the survey highlights the lack of national policies focused on U.S. primary care. Unless primary care practices are part of more integrated care systems, they are on their own facing multiple payers with uncoordinated policies."

Davis noted that key national reforms could make a significant difference by:

  • Covering everyone, with benefits that emphasize primary care and prevention and remove financial barriers and support primary care physicians as well as their patients;
  • Providing financial incentives focused on value and health outcomes;
  • Supporting primary care practices and their capacity to serve as "medical homes" with 24-hour access, use of teams of health professionals and continuity of care;
  • Accelerating the adoption and use of health information technology, including electronic medication prescribing, to reduce risks of errors;
  • Simplifying insurance to reduce complexity and paperwork for doctors and their staff; and
  • Investing in information systems with quality reporting and feedback to spread improved care and safety.