Background: Physician reimbursement laws for diagnostic interpretive services require that only those services provided contemporaneously and /or contribute directly to patient care can be billed for. Despite these regulations, cardiologists and radiologists in many hospitals continue to bill for ECG and plain film diagnostic services performed in the emergency department (ED). The reimbursement value of this care, which is disconnected in time and place from the ED patient encounter, is unknown. In a California community ED with a 32,000 annual census, the emergency physicians (EPs) alone, by contract, bill for all ECG readings and plain film interpretations when the radiologists are not available to provide contemporaneous readings.
Objectives: To determine the impact of this billing practice on actual EP reimbursement we undertook an analysis that allows calculation of physician reimbursement from billing data.
Methods: An IRB-approved analysis of 12 months of billing data cleansed of all patient identifiers was undertaken for 2003. From the data we created a descriptive study with itemized breakdown of reimbursement for radiograph and ECG interpretive services (procedures) and the gross resultant physician income.
Results: In 2003 EPs at this hospital treated patients during 32,690 ED visits. Total group income in 2003 for radiographs was $173,555 and $91,025 for ECGs, or $19/EP hour and $6/EP hour respectively. For the average full-time EP, the combined total is $2537/month or $30,444 per annum, per EP. This is $8/ED visit (averaged across all patients).
Conclusion: As EP-reimbursement is challenged by rising malpractice premiums, uninsured patients, HMO contracts, unfunded government mandates and state budgetary shortfalls, EPs are seeking to preserve their patient services and resultant income. They should also be reimbursed for those services and the liability that they incur. The reimbursement value of ECGs and plain film interpretations to the practicing EP is substantial. In the ED studied, it represents $30,444 gross income per full-time EP annually. Plain film interpretation services produce three times the hourly revenue of ECG reading at the hospital studied.