Although much has been written about the ethics of new methods of health care financing, little is known about the extent to which physicians experience these cost-control arrangements as ethical problems.
A cross-sectional telephone survey of 1549 physicians, 8 to 17 years after residency, randomly selected from 75 US metropolitan service areas (response rate, 74.0%).
Only 17.0% believed that financial incentives to limit services are ethically acceptable. Although 52.9% thought that physicians should try to abide by guidelines discouraging the use of interventions with possible but unproven benefit, only 14.5% thought such guidelines should be enforced by payers. Only 5.7% thought that it was morally acceptable for payers to discourage physicians from telling patients about their personal financial incentives, and only 9.1% found compliance with such restrictions morally acceptable. Changes in the health care system in the past 5 years were believed to have had a negative impact on their own patients' trust in them by 50.6%, and 80.8% believed that changes in the health care system in the past decade have diminished physicians' commitment to an ethic of undivided loyalty to patients. In multiple regression analysis, physicians who reported that the overall personal financial incentives in their practices encouraged them to reduce services were significantly more likely to have ethical objections to such incentives, to believe their own patients' trust in them had diminished, and to believe that the ethic of undivided loyalty to patients had diminished.
Many of the methods now commonly used to influence medical decision making are considered ethically objectionable by most midcareer physicians. Whether their ethical disquiet about these arrangements is justified cannot be answered from these data.