BACKGROUND: Given the increase in financial-incentive programs nationwide, many physicians and physician groups are concerned about potential unintended consequences of providing financial incentives to improve quality of care. However, few studies examine whether actual unintended consequences result from providing financial incentives to physicians. We sought to document the extent to which the unintended consequences discussed in the literature were observable in a randomized clinical trial (RCT) of financial incentives. METHODS: We conducted a qualitative observational study nested within a larger RCT of financial incentives to improve hypertension care. We conducted 30-minute telephone interviews with primary care personnel at facilities participating in the RCT housed at12 geographically dispersed Veterans Affairs Medical Centers nationwide. Participants answered questions about unintended effects, clinic team dynamics, organizational impact on care delivery, study participation. We employed a blend of inductive and deductive qualitative techniques for analysis. PARTICIPANTS: Sixty-five participants were recruited from RCT enrollees and personnel not enrolled in the larger RCT, plus one primary care leader per site. RESULTS: Emergent themes included possible patient harm, emphasis on documentation over improving care, reduced professional morale, and positive spillover. All discussions of unintended consequences involving patient harm were only concerns, not actual events. Several unintended consequences concerned ancillary initiatives for quality improvement (e.g., practice guidelines and performance measurement systems) rather than financial incentives. CONCLUSIONS: Many unintended consequences of financial incentives noted were either only concerns or attributable to ancillary quality-improvement initiatives. Actual unintended consequences included improved documentation of care without necessarily improving actual care, and positive unintended consequences. TRIAL REGISTRATION: Clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT00302718.
Hysong, S. J., SoRelle, R., Broussard Smitham, K., & Petersen, L. A. (2017). Reports of unintended consequences of financial incentives to improve management of hypertension. PLoS ONE, 12(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184856