Patient-sharing networks reveal doctor similarities

July 26, 2012

Your interactions with other physicians may be more telling than ever, according to researchers studying the influence doctors have on each other.

If you share patients with your colleagues, chances are you have practice and personal styles in common, too. So say researchers who conducted a study to learn more about doctor networks.

“It has long been known that physician behavior varies across geographic areas, yet our understanding of the factors that contribute to these geographic differences is incomplete,” say Bruce E. Landon, MD, MBA, and colleagues at Harvard University who conducted the study. Their findings indicate that healthcare varies by location because of informal information-sharing networks.

The study examined almost 4.6 million Medicare recipients seen by 68,288 doctors who practice in hospitals located in 51 referral regions. The results appear in the July 18 issue of JAMA.

“Characteristics of physicians’ patient populations also were associated with the presence of ties between physicians. Across all racial and ethnic groups, connected physicians had more similar racial compositions of their patient panels than unconnected physicians,” the investigators say. For example, the study showed that the differences in patient age and percentage of Medicaid patients were smaller for doctors in networks than for those who were not. “Physicians...tend to cluster together along attributes that characterize their own backgrounds and the clinical circumstances of their patients.”

Because collaboration is a key component of the Affordable Care Act, social networks among physicians will continue to grow, the researchers predict. How doctors work together is becoming increasingly important.

“This approach might have useful applications for policy makers seeking to influence physician behavior (whether related to accountable care organizations or innovation adoptions) because it is likely that physicians are strongly influenced by their network of relationships with other physicians,” they conclude.

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