What Physician Alignment Means to the Patient

What Physician Alignment Means to the Patient

November 2013

"Physician Alignment." As a patient, you may have heard the term in passing. It's a hot buzzword in medical circles today. It's also known as "clinical integration." But what does "physician alignment" mean, and how does it affect you, the patient?

Physician alignment has nothing to do with chiropractors or the front end of an automobile. It's a new way of looking at the relationship between doctors and hospitals in order to improve quality of health care and the way practices are managed.

Understanding Physician Alignment

Simply put, physician alignment is the collaboration between physicians and their medical groups to share, understand, and work toward accomplishing the shared goal of providing quality care to patients.

The idea of aligning physicians with hospitals and health systems has been experimented with since the 1990s. In many cases those early physician alignment ventures failed to meet expectations, and the idea faded. Then, several years ago, the idea resurfaced. Today, economic changes, new payment models, and demands of new federal health reform all require greater alignment between hospitals and physicians.

Physician Alignment: The Direct Route to Quality Care

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is causing major changes in the delivery of health care. Perhaps the most significant is the transition from a model that reimburses independent physicians on a fee-for-service basis to one where individual physicians are actually employed by the hospital system.

Directly employing physicians within a hospital system is one of the main strategies healthcare leaders are using to improve physician alignment with the interests of the entire health system. However, the main goal of this strategy must remain focused on quality patient care.

Today, an increasing number of physicians are joining health systems to focus on patient care rather than deal with the administrative burden and cost of a private practice. Nationally, the number of independent physicians employed by health systems is expected to grow by five percent each of the next three years. By the end of 2013, less than a third of physicians are expected to be in private practice.

Today, most hospitals employ or contract with physicians in some way. In a physician-aligned system, patients enjoy improved access and consistent standards of quality throughout the system, from physiciansʼ offices and outpatient facilities to hospital inpatient care and services such as rehabilitation and home care.

The Physician Alignment Challenge: Better Patient-Centered Care for Less

Under a physician alignment model, healthcare organizations are finding it is possible to improve care quality for the patient while reducing costs, thanks to integration of care, improved communication and technological advances in performance data analysis to streamline processes.

The transition to a physician-aligned system requires taking a more patient-centered approach to care delivery, with a broad focus on wellness. Providing the highest-quality patient-centered care requires a closely aligned team of physicians and experts.

Patients may not even notice physician alignment with a hospital system, as many aligned physicians continue to practice in the same offices. Physician partners can simply focus on what they do best — providing comprehensive, patient-centered medical care.

Physician Alignment and Increased Hospital Efficiency

To a doctor, any time saved is an opportunity to spend more with patients. Although efficient hospital operations make life easier for hospitalists and other hospital-based physicians, the biggest winners are hospital-aligned physicians. The more efficient the hospital, the higher the probability that physicians, who have greater and greater demands on their time, will be able to increase their level of patient commitment.

Physician Alignment Improves Resource Availability

The physician alignment model is increasingly appealing as physicians face economic challenges, particularly large amounts of capital needed for electronic records to improve efficiency and clinical efficiency.

In most physician-aligned systems, supplies are purchased in volume by the healthcare organization. This can help control costs and leave physicians to do what they do best — attend to patients. Other resources such as expensive medical equipment are shared to reduce overhead costs. This means the patient has improved access to important medical equipment, and possibly lower costs.

Physician Alignment Means Better Access to Specialists

Physician alignment offers other new patient benefits, such as better access to specialists for low-income patients. This is particularly true for patients with Medicaid coverage, who historically have had poor access to independent specialists.

Summary: Physician Alignment and the Patient

As organizations move toward physician alignment with a patient-centered mindset, physicians and hospital administrators are working together to meet common goals. By taking this proactive approach, hospitals, physicians and health systems can build collaborative relationships that benefit everyone, especially patients.

A prominent hospital administration handbook quotes, "physicians have patients, and hospitals do not." This is the basic idea behind physician alignment. The physicians and the hospital have a public trust to provide cost-effective, quality care. Physician Alignment enables patients to benefit from coordinated care across multiple settings to meet the shared goal of quality patient care.