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Cavernous gender gap in Medicare payments to cardiologists


Women cardiologists receive dramatically smaller payments from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) than their male counterparts, new research suggests.

An analysis of 2016 claims data revealed male cardiologists received on average 45% more reimbursement than women in the inpatient setting, with the median payment 39% higher ($62,897 vs. $45,288).

In the outpatient setting, men received on average 62% more annual CMS payments, with the median payment 75% higher ($91,053 vs. $51,975; P < .001 for both).

The difference remained significant after the exclusion of the top and bottom 2.5% of earning physicians and cardiology subspecialties, like electrophysiology and interventional cardiology, with high procedural volumes and greater gender imbalances.

“This is one study among others which demonstrates a wage gap between men and women in medicine in cardiology,” lead author Inbar Raber, MD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, said in an interview. “I hope by increasing awareness [and] understanding of possible etiologies, it will enable some sustainable solutions, and those include access to additional support staff and equitable models surrounding parental leave and childcare support.”

The study, published online September 8 in JAMA Cardiology, comes on the heels of a recent cross-sectional analysis that put cardiology at the bottom of 13 internal medicine subspecialties with just 21% female faculty representation and one of only three specialties in which women’s median salaries did not reach 90% of men’s.

The new findings build on a 2017 report that showed Medicare payments to women physicians in 2013 were 55% of those to male physicians across all specialties.

“It can be disheartening, especially as an early career woman cardiologist, seeing these differences, but I think the responsibility on all of us is to take these observations and really try to understand more deeply why they exist,” Nosheen Reza, MD, from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and coauthor of the cross-sectional analysis, told this news organization.

Several factors could be contributing to the disparity, but “it’s not gender discrimination from Medicare,” Dr. Raber said. “The gap in reimbursement is really driven by the types and the volume of charges submitted.”

Indeed, a direct comparison of the three most common inpatient and outpatient billing codes showed no difference in payments between the sexes.

Men, however, submitted 24% more median inpatient charges to CMS than women (1,190 vs. 959), and 94% more outpatient charges (1,685 vs. 870).

Men also submitted slightly more unique billing codes (median inpatient, 10 vs. 9; median outpatient, 11 vs. 8).

Notably, women made up just 13% of the 17,524 cardiologists who received CMS payments in the inpatient setting in 2016 and 13% of the 16,929 cardiologists who did so in the outpatient setting.

Louisiana had the dubious distinction of having the largest gender gap in mean CMS payments, with male cardiologists earning $145,323 (235%) more than women, whereas women cardiologists in Vermont out-earned men by $31,483 (38%).

Overall, male cardiologists had more years in practice than women cardiologists and cared for slightly older Medicare beneficiaries.

Differences in CMS payments persisted, however, after adjustment for years since graduation, physician subspecialty, number of charges, number of unique billing codes, and patient complexity. The resulting β coefficient was -0.06, which translates into women receiving an average of 94% of the CMS payments received by men.

“The first takeaway, if you were really crass and focused on the bottom line, might be: ‘Hey, let me get a few more male cardiologists because they’re going to bring more into the organization.’ But we shouldn’t do that because, unless you link these data with quality outcomes, they’re an interesting observation and hypothesis-generating,” said Sharonne Hayes, MD, coauthor of the 2017 report and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where she has served as director of diversity and inclusion for a decade.

She noted that there are multiple examples that the style of medicine women practice, on average, may be more effective, may be more outcomes based, and may save lives, as suggested by a recent analysis of hospitalized Medicare beneficiaries.

“The gap was not much different, like within 1% or so, but when you take that over the literally millions of Medicare patients cared for each year by hospitalists, that’s a substantial number of people,” Dr. Hayes said. “So, I think we need to take a step back, and we have to include these observations on studies like this and better understand the compensation gaps.”

She pointed out that the present study lacks data on full-time-equivalent status but that female physicians are more likely to work part-time, thus reducing the volume of claims.

Women might also care for different patient populations. “I practice in a women’s heart clinic and take care of [spontaneous coronary artery dissection] SCAD patients where the average age of SCAD is 42. So, the vast majority of patients I see on a day-to-day basis aren’t going to be Medicare age,” observed Dr. Hayes.

The differences in charges might also reflect the increased obligations in nonreimbursed work that women can have, Dr. Raber said. These can be things like mentoring, teaching roles, and serving on committees, which is a hypothesis supported by a 2021 study that showed women physicians spend more time on these “citizenship tasks” than men.

Finally, there could be organizational barriers that affect women’s clinical volumes, including less access to support from health care personnel. Added support is especially important, though, amid a 100-year pandemic, the women agreed.

“Within the first year of the pandemic, we saw women leaving the workforce in droves across all sectors, including medicine, including academic medicine. And, as the pandemic goes on without any signs of abatement, those threats continue to exist and continue to be amplified,” Dr. Reza said.

The groundswell of support surrounding the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives across the board has helped bring attention to the issue, she said. Some institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, are making efforts to extend relief to women with young families, caregivers, or those in academic medicine who, for example, need extensions on grants or bridge funding.

“There’s certainly a lot left to do, but I do think within the last year, there’s been an acceleration of literature that has come out, not only pointing out the disparities, but pointing out that perhaps women physicians do have better outcomes and are better liked by their patients and that losing women in the workforce would be a huge detriment to the field overall,” Dr. Reza said.

Dr. Raber, Dr. Reza, and Dr. Hayes reports no relevant financial relationships. Coauthor conflict of interest disclosures are listed in the paper.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.



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