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Quantifying the Financial Impact of Overuse in Primary Care in China: A Standardised Patient Study

Yafei Si, Hazel Bateman, Shu Chen, Katja Hanewal, Bingqin Li, Min Su and Zhongliang Zhou

Abstract: Overuse of health care is a potential factor in explaining the rapid increase in health care expenditure in many countries; however, it is difficult to measure overuse. This study employed the novel method of using unannounced standardised patients (SPs) to identify overuse, document its patterns and quantify its financial impact on patients in primary care in China. We trained 18 SPs to present consistent cases of two common chronic diseases and recorded 492 physician patient interactions in 63 public and private primary hospitals in a capital city in western China in 2017 and 2018. Overuse, defined as the provision of unnecessary medical tests and drugs, was identified by a panel of medical experts based on national clinical guidelines. We estimated linear regression models to investigate how hospital, physician and patient characteristics were associated with overuse and to quantify the financial impact of overuse after controlling for a series of fixed effects. We found overuse in 72.15% of the SP visits. The high prevalence of overuse was similar among public and private hospitals, low-competence and high-competence physicians, male and female physicians, junior and senior physicians and male and female patients, but it varied between patients presenting different diseases. Compared to the non-overuse group, overuse significantly increased the total cost by 117.8%, the test cost by 58.8% and the drug cost by 100.3%. The financial impact of overuse was consistent across the aforementioned hospital, physician and patient characteristics. We suggest that the overuse observed in this study is unlikely to be attributable to physician incompetence but rather to the financing framework for primary care in China. These findings illuminate the cost escalation of primary care in China, which is a form of medical inefficiency that should be urgently addressed.

Keywords: health care expenditure, overuse, primary care, standardised patient, China

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