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Should there be a billing code for compassionate care?

Posted Jan 30 2011 4:45pm
Back in 2009, Dr. Amy Ship gave a moving acceptance speech when she received the annual Compassionate Caregiver Award from the Schwartz Center .

The most memorable tag line from the speech was, "There is no billing code for compassion." This resonated with so many of us -- patients and providers -- in part because it set forth the proposition that compassionate care should be an inherent aspect of medical services. The idea that some portion of a doctor's or hospital's payment should be tied to such an essential human value seemed ludicrous.

Or is it? A recent survey conducted by the Schwartz Center, entitled " The state of compassionate care in the United States ," indirectly raises the issue. Those patients and doctors surveyed were overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that compassionate care was important to the successful treatment of patients. They agreed, too, that compassionate care makes a difference in how well a patient recovers from illness. Indeed, they believed that good communication and emotional support can make a difference in whether a patient lives or dies.

But there was a gap between what patients said was most important to them, in terms of compassionate care, and what they actually experienced during recent hospitalizations. And, looking forward, both patients and doctors are worried that the changes being made in our health care system will make it more difficult for providers to offer compassionate care.

Now, if we remove the word "compassionate" from the above discussion and instead insert "safety," "quality," "avoiding hospital acquired infections," or the like, our immediate response would be that we need to change the system of hospital and physician payments to provide financial incentives to change things for the better. Whether we might propose a pay-for-performance approach or some kind of global payment to encourage improvement, the current environment seems very comfortable with using the payment system to nudge behavior in the right direction.

So, why not pay for compassion? Surely, we can name those aspects of care that are most closely tied to compassion, and we can likewise document whether they occur.

While I will let this debate play out in the comments below, let me start it off by saying that I believe this would be a mistake. So many discrete aspects of medical care are already monetized that is hard to imagine a payment regime that would actually focus sufficient financial attention to motivate a doctor along the spectrum of less-to-more compassion. Beyond that, the idealist in me is offended by the idea of paying someone to, in essence, be more humane. In my view, this is not a matter of remuneration. It is a matter of societal values and a training program and ongoing supervision that imbues practice with those values.

But, let's hear what you have to say. Should there be a billing code for compassionate care?
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