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Association of Clinical Characteristics With Variation in Emergency Physician Preferences for Patients


Importance:Much of the wide variation in health care has been associated with practice variation among physicians. Physicians choosing to see patients with more (or fewer) care needs could also produce variations in care observed across physicians. Objective:To quantify emergency physician preferences by measuring nonrandom variations in patients they choose to see. Design, Setting, and Participants:This cross-sectional study used a large, detailed clinical data set from an electronic health record system of a single academic hospital. The data set included all emergency department (ED) encounters of adult patients from January 1, 2010, to May 31, 2015, as well as ED visits information. Data were analyzed from September 1, 2018, to March 31, 2019. Exposure:Patient assignment to a particular emergency physician. Main Outcomes and Measures:Variation in patient characteristics (age, sex, acuity [Emergency Severity Index score], and comorbidities) seen by emergency physicians before patient selection, adjusted for temporal factors (seasonal, weekly, and hourly variation in patient mix). Results:This study analyzed 294 915 visits to the ED seen by 62 attending physicians. Of the 294 915 patients seen, the mean (SD) age was 48.6 (19.8) years and 176 690 patients (59.9%) were women. Many patient characteristics, such as age (F = 2.2; P < .001), comorbidities (F = 1.7; P < .001), and acuity (F = 4.7; P < .001), varied statistically significantly. Compared with the lowest-quintile physicians for each respective characteristic, the highest-quintile physicians saw patients who were older (mean age, 47.9 [95% CI, 47.8-48.1] vs 49.7 [95% CI, 49.5-49.9] years, respectively; difference, +1.8 years; 95% CI, 1.5-2.0 years) and sicker (mean comorbidity score: 0.4 [95% CI, 0.3-0.5] vs 1.8 [95% CI, 1.7-1.8], respectively; difference, +1.3; 95% CI, 1.2-1.4). These differences were absent or highly attenuated during overnight shifts, when only 1 physician was on duty and there was limited room for patient selection. Compared with earlier in the shift, the same physician later in the shift saw patients who were younger (mean age, 49.7 [95% CI, 49.4-49.7] vs 44.6 [95 % CI, 44.3-44.9] years, respectively; difference, -5.1 years; 95% CI, 4.8-5.5) and less sick (mean comorbidity score: 0.7 [95% CI, 0.7-0.8] vs 1.1 [95% CI, 1.1-1.1], respectively; difference, -0.4; 95% CI, 0.4-0.4). Accounting for preference variation resulted in substantial reordering of physician ranking by care intensity, as measured by ED charges, with 48 of 62 physicians (77%) being reclassified into a different quintile and 9 of 12 physicians (75%) in the highest care intensity quintile moving into a lower quintile. A regression model demonstrated that 22% of reported ED charges were associated with physician preference. Conclusions and Relevance:This study found preference variation across physicians and within physicians during the course of a shift. These findings suggest that current efforts to reduce practice variation may not affect the variation associated with physician preferences, which reflect underlying differences in patient needs and not physician practice.

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