Containing costs, promoting high-quality care for all patients, and sustaining physician professionalism are important goals. Models for financing and organizing the delivery of health care services often aim to promote patient safety and to improve quality and efficiency. However, they can also pose ethical challenges for physicians that could undermine the trust essential to patient-physician relationships.

Payment models and financial incentives can create conflicts of interest among patients, health care organizations, and physicians. They can encourage undertreatment and overtreatment, as well as dictate goals that are not individualized for the particular patient.

Structures that influence where and by whom care is delivered—such as accountable care organizations, group practices, health maintenance organizations, and other entities that may emerge in the future—can affect patients’ choices, the patient-physician relationship, and physicians’ relationships with fellow health care professionals.

Formularies, clinical practice guidelines, and other tools intended to influence decision making, may impinge on physicians’ exercise of professional judgment and ability to advocate effectively for their patients, depending on how they are designed and implemented.

Physicians in leadership positions within health care organizations should ensure that practices for financing and organizing the delivery of care:

(a) Are transparent.

(b) Reflect input from key stakeholders, including physicians and patients.

(c) Recognize that over reliance on financial incentives may undermine physician professionalism.

(d) Ensure ethically acceptable incentives that:

  1. Are designed in keeping with sound principles and solid scientific evidence. Financial incentives should be based on appropriate comparison groups and cost data and adjusted to reflect complexity, case mix and other factors that affect physician practice profiles. Practice guidelines, formularies and other tools should be based on best available evidence and developed in keeping with ethics guidance.
  2. Are implemented fairly and do not disadvantage identifiable populations of patients or physicians or exacerbate health care disparities.
  3. Are implemented in conjunction with the infrastructure and resources needed to support high-value care and physician professionalism.
  4. Mitigate possible conflicts between physicians’ financial interests and patient interests by minimizing the financial impact of patient care decisions and the overall financial risk for individual physicians.

(e) Encourage, rather than discourage, physicians (and others) to:

  1. Provide care for patients with difficult to manage medical conditions.
  2. Practice at their full capacity, but not beyond.

(f) Recognize physicians’ primary obligation to their patients by enabling physicians to respond to the unique needs of individual patients and providing avenues for meaningful appeal and advocacy on behalf of patients.

(g) Are routinely monitored to:

  1. Identify and address adverse consequences.
  2. Identify and encourage dissemination of positive outcomes.

All physicians should:

(h) Hold physician-leaders accountable to meeting conditions for professionalism in health care systems.

(i) Advocate for changes in health care payment and delivery models to promote access to high-quality care for all patients.

AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: I, II, III, V

Code of Medical Ethics: Financing and delivery of health care

Visit the Ethics main page to access additional Opinions, the Principles of Medical Ethics and more information about the Code of Medical Ethics.

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