Health care costs are a recurring topic of heated debate, especially over the past few years. Many people have turned to legislators to plead for reduced costs, but could doctors also play a role?

In a new study, researchers zeroed in on physicians and their perspectives on health care costs. A total of 2,556 American doctors were surveyed on their role and responsibility toward health care savings, along with their feelings on cost reduction as outlined in the Affordable Care Act.

What did doctors say about health care costs?

While few doctors expressed enthusiasm toward doing away with the concept of a fee or copay for care services, many responded positively to aiding in patient savings. Eighty-five percent of doctors said they would not deny beneficial services to someone who needed it most, even if they could not afford it. Physicians admitted that some diagnostic testing done before treatments for cancers or other serious diseases can become costly, and 89 percent agreed that they, as a community, should take a bigger part in eliminating the use of unnecessary testing and, thus, spending.

Many of the doctors surveyed expressed a desire to help reduce costs. Seventy-five percent of physicians indicated that continuity of care was important. This means that instead of performing one very expensive surgery to help someone, the patient would instead be put on a treatment regimen and monitored closely. Close to 90 percent of the doctors agreed that interventions, such as treatments for diabetes or cancers, should be updated if a competing, and more affordable, treatment is available — in order to ensure that patients are receiving appropriate and advantageous treatments. In terms of treatments, 51 percent agreed that they should limit access to expensive treatments with few benefits, and 47 percent indicated that cost efficacy data should be available to them when they are making treatment plans.

How can costs be reduced?

Most doctors indicated that patients should still pay for their treatments, as treatment strategies can become expensive, and a doctor should not be expected to take on the burden of all of his patients' costs. Nevertheless, an average of 42 percent of doctors agreed that cost to patients shouldn't rise. However, 94 percent felt Medicare should not be allowed to reduce payments made to doctors for services rendered. Similarly, 44 percent of the doctors did not support the idea of cutting compensation for highly paid specialties like surgery and cardiology, as these procedures tend to take the most skill and practice.

However, it is important to note that doctors are not to blame for health care costs. Their only aim is to maintain health while still being able to make a living: 78 percent agreed that they were devoted to their patients' best interests, regardless of cost. Most of the exorbitant expenses is due to caution. When a doctor sees a patient for the first time, it is prudent to order as many tests as possible to ensure that the patient is in proper health. This is also done to ensure that they are not treating the patient unfairly by failing to perform all of the diagnostic tests possible to find out what is wrong. Seventy percent said they would order, or over-order, examinations for patients because they feared malpractice suits.

Perhaps most importantly, the results of the survey show that doctors are well-aware of the high costs. Fourty-eight percent of them said that doctors need to take a more prominent role in reducing costs of tests and procedures, simply by performing fewer of them.

What are the next steps?

This survey, thus, indicates that doctors are willing to do what they can to improve health care costs for their patients. However, health care cost reduction should be a concerted effort between the government and doctors. In order for doctors to take on a greater role in managing health care costs, the government needs to support them and provide them with information on specific diagnostic tests and treatments, in addition to funding research for the development of alternative, cheaper treatments. Once this system is in place, health care costs are likely to be relieved, allowing Americans to receive adequate care without breaking the bank.

Source: Tilburt JC, Wynia MK, Sheeler RD, et al. Views of US Physicians About Controlling Health Care Costs. JAMA. 2013.