The private practice survey was conducted jointly by the Hong Kong Medical Association and Harvard University in 1998. The primary objective of the survey is to provide up-to-date, fair and accurate descriptions of private practices in Hong Kong. This information is important background information to the overall study of the strengths and weaknesses of the Hong Kong health care system, as well as to the development of viable alternative financing and delivery options.
The survey collected information on practice capacity, payment arrangements, practice expense, charges, referral patterns and views about participation in managed care. The specific questions that the private provider survey attempts to answer include:
1. What is the capacity of the private sector to treat more patients?
2. Given practice expense patterns, what volume and fee level need to be assured in order for private practice to survive?
3. How, and to what extent, does communication take place between public and private providers?
4. To what extent has managed care and contract medicine penetrated into private practice?
Other than findings for the entire sample, results were also presented separately for generalists and specialists, and for Estate Doctors Association (EDA) members and non-members. In instances where differences between the mean and median are large, both are reported.1 Of approximately (3800) members of the Hong Kong Medical Association in private practice who received the survey, 603 responses were received. The response rate is 16%2. Given the relatively low response rate, the generalizability of the results should be interpreted with caution. Nonetheless, this survey provides information on the major areas of private practice that does not exist at present in Hong Kong.
1. Background The physicians who responded to this survey had an average of 13 years of experience in private medical practice. Almost half, 44% reported practicing as general practitioners only, 24 % practiced in a specialty only, and 32% practiced in both general medicine and specialty care. Of those who only practiced as specialists, the most frequently reported specialties were Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Opthamology, Orthopedics, and Psychiatry. The physicians who reported both general and specialty practices had different specialties. The most common ones being Family Medicine, Pediatrics, General Surgery and Internal Medicine.
Other than being members of HKMA, 40% of the respondents were also members of the Estate Doctors Association, and 18% were members of other associations, including Practicing Estate Doctors Association, Chinese Doctors Association, and the Public Doctors Association.
Eighty two percent of respondents practiced in one private clinic, while 15% practiced in 2 clinics. Most physicians report that they are in solo practice (80%), while 11% are in multispecialty practice and 7% in a single specialty practice. Almost all (93%) of EDA doctors are in solo practice as compared to 77% of non EDA doctors (Tables 1a and 1b).
2. Practice Capacity The sample of private physicians responded that they worked an average of 40 hours per week, seeing an average of 36 patients daily. More than 80% of physicians expressed that they would like to see more patients. On average, they would like to see 60 more patients a week.
Consistent with expectation, generalists had higher patient volume than specialists. Generalists worked 46 hours per week, and saw 44 patients per day. In comparison, specialists practiced 35 hours per week and saw 30 patients per day. Generalists responded that they would like to see 77 more patients per week, while specialists would like to see 51 more patients per week (Table 1a).
EDA doctors tend to have higher patient volume than non-EDA doctors, partly because more of the responding EDA doctors were generalists. EDA doctors worked an average of 46 hours a week and saw 46 patients per day. Non-EDA doctors worked on average 36 hours per week and saw 30 patients per day. While 80% of non-EDA doctors said that they would like to see more patients, 88% of EDA doctors would like to see more patients. The number of patients that EDA respondents would like to see more are significantly higher than those for non-EDA doctors, 87 compared to 45 per week (Table 1b).
3. Financial Arrangement This information was of particular interest when the survey was designed, as there was relatively little known about the newer payment arrangements private practice face, and the degree to which they are being adopted. The survey specifically collected information on the following types of financial arrangements (see attachment):
Medical insurance provided by a third party which reimburses the physicians their usual fees (e.g. HSBC Medical Insurance, National Mutual, BUPA, etc., excluding contract medicine);
Contract medicine with employer negotiated fee schedule (e.g. Hong Kong Bank, Jardines, Swire, etc.);
Contract medicine with discounted fees;
Contract m4edicine with prepaid medical scheme.
Fee-for-service still accounted for the biggest patient share for most private practices. All physicians in the sample had patients who paid out-of-pocket and they represented about 70% of the patient share (Tables 2a and 2b).
Approximately 90% of the physicians in the sample had patients who were covered by medical insurance. Among these physicians, 10-15% of their patients was covered by such insurance. Although non-EDA physicians were more likely to be covered by medical insurance than EDA doctors, the differences were not statistically significant. Contrary to expectation, physicians report that only 70-80% of their usual charges was reimbursed by these insurance schemes (Tables 2a and 2b).
Direct contract with employers
Approximately 60% of the responding physicians had direct contract with employers who usually reimburse them on a fee-for-service basis. These contracts covered about 10% (median) of their patients, and they covered a larger share of patients for non-EDA than for EDA practices. Such contracts usually reimbursed only 50-60% of the usual charges of the physicians (Tables 2a and 2b).
Contracts: discounted fees
Discounted fees and prepaid schemes are more recent forms of payment arrangements between physicians and payers in Hong Kong and they cover a smaller proportion of practicing physicians. About 40% of physicians responded that they had discounted fee contracts. EDA doctors tend to be more likely to have such contracts than non-EDA doctors (50 vs 35%). However, such contracts only covered about 10% of physician total practice volume and they reimbursed about 50% of physicians’ usual fees (Tables 2a and 2b).
Under prepaid contracts, physicians are paid a pre-agreed sum of money in advance to provide care for a number of patients. Only about less than 20% of the sample was covered by prepaid contracts. These contracts reimbursed only about half of the physicians’ usual fees. However, specialists in the sample reported that only 35% of their usual fees were reimbursed (Tables 2a and 2b).
4. Practice Expense The total monthly expenditure reported is approximately HK$100,000. Although expenses for specialists are slightly higher than for generalists, they are not statistically significant. About 30% is spent on rent, 30% on medical supplies, and 30% on staff salary (Tables 3a and 3b).
5. Current Charges and Trends Table 4a presents mean and median charges by generalists and specialists. There are noticeable and statistically significant differences in charges by class of bed. Wherever there are significant sample sizes, charges for generalists and specialists are compared. As expected, specialists charge significantly higher prices than generalists.
Table 4b presents charges for EDA and non-EDA doctors. For almost all cases for second and third class beds, EDA charges are significantly lower than non-EDA charges.
Table 4c compares charges for years 1996 and 1998 for generalists and specialists. Over time, charges have remained relatively stable, with some minor drops for GPs and increase for SPs.
6. Referrals In the analysis of care in the health care system in Hong Kong, the interface between the public and private sectors has been carefully examined. Any patient being referred from one physician or institute to another relies on the information being transferred in order for informed decisions to be made. This section of the survey collected information on referral practices. Overall, responding physicians refer about 8 patients a month to public MDs or institutions. Among the referring physicians, more than 50% of them receive reports from the referred physicians less than 7-10% of times. The majority waited until the patients return next time to find out the results of referral. On the contrary, referred physicians in the private are much more likely to report back to the referring physicians. The most common form of communication between referral is through written letter. This implies that the quality (e.g. thoroughness, clarity, etc) of the letter is critical in the referral system of Hong Kong. Referral patterns between generalists and specialists, and EDA and non-EDA doctors are relatively similar (Tables 5a and 5b).
7. Attitudes and reactions to managed care The majority of respondents (76%) feel threatened by managed care. The most commonly cited reason for participating in managed care is to increase patient load (~70%). On the other hand, the most commonly cited reasons for NOT participating in managed care plans are low financial reimbursement and the fear of loss of autonomy (Tables 6a and 6b).
Table 1a. PRACTICE INFORMATION
How many hours/wk do you practice in all clinics?
How many patients/day do you see in all clinics?
Would you like to see more patients/week? Yes(%)
How many more patients would you like to see weekly?