As health systems take tentative steps to resume non-emergent procedures and office visits, it’s increasingly clear that volume will not quickly return to pre-COVID levels. According to a health system chief physician executive we spoke with this week, this has forced medical group leadership to reevaluate physician compensation, at least for the rest of 2020.
“We’ve kept our doctors pretty much whole for the past three months,” she said, “but given the losses we’re facing for the rest of the year, we can’t keep it up much longer.” We’ve had a flurry of calls in the past two weeks with systems in the same position. Most of their doctors are primarily paid based on their productivity. “We all loved the upside opportunity,” mused one physician leader, “but we never thought something could happen that would completely wipe us out.”
This point got us wondering whether we might be seeing the beginning of the end of RVU-based physician compensation, as physicians seek greater stability and safety. But moving to a salary-driven model is far from easy. How much upside are doctors willing to trade off for security? The survey data used to benchmark compensation, based on last year’s business model, is essentially irrelevant—and likely will be for next year as well. According to one consultant, “Given that there’s no consistency in volume or compensation strategy, the 2020 data will be garbage, too.” Not to mention, dramatically shifting the way doctors are paid has huge cultural and operational ramifications.
There are no easy answers, but we think this conversation about the future of compensation, and the larger issues it raises about doctors’ relationship to, and role in, the health system, is long overdue. One executive shared his system’s plan to pay their doctors 85 percent of their 2019 compensation through the summer. He’s not sure yet what the other side of August looks like. “Maybe we’ll have physicians who want to continue to be paid on productivity like a car salesman. But if you want that kind of upside now, the safety net likely won’t be there the next time.” However, he hopes this experience “provides a reset point that gets us to a more sustainable—and professional—way of working together for the future.”