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Mason researcher receives grant to study the implications of physician consolidation

December 18, 2017   /   by John Hollis

Alison Cuellar

Alison Cuellar will study physician consolidation influences health care costs. Photo by Ron Aira.

A George Mason University researcher has received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study the growing trend of physician consolidation and its effect on health care in America.

Alison Cuellar, a professor of Health Administration and Policy with Mason’s College of Health and Human Services, is teaming with the University of Michigan’s Jeffrey McCullough to better understand the implications of the steady increase in the number of physicians merging into larger practices. The one-year, $150,000 grant will allow Cuellar and McCullough to breakdown national physician consolidation over the last five years to gauge its impact on the price of health care.

Their results will help better inform policymakers, community leaders and patients while potentially helping shape what American health care looks like in the future.

“There has been this trend toward physicians’ groups consolidating,” Cuellar said. “We’ve had a sense of that, but we want to combine data sets that will let us map the integration of physicians and how they’ve integrated with hospital systems in larger health systems as well. Some of them have been acquired by health insurers, so we’re going to map the landscape, create an interactive tool so people can understand where this consolidation is occurring and relate it back to their local area and see how it has impacted the price of health care.”

There have been a number of studies documenting steady increases in physician prices at a time of increased physician consolidation, but the pattern has not been uniform across specialties or regions.

The aim of the larger physician organizations is to provide better-coordinated care, monitor population health and improved quality for patients, but that consolidation has also spawned growing concerns that greater physician market power could raise prices.

Using 2011 to 2015 data from the Health Care Cost Institute and other sources, Cuellar and McCullough will apply machine learning techniques to estimate how these impacts vary by type of service, marketplace sector and other community factors. The researchers will produce online maps and publications, and present their findings to a variety of stakeholder audiences, including policymakers at the federal, state and local levels.

“No one is intentionally trying to make health care worse,” Cuellar said. “We are trying to lower the costs of the system and—if we created these bargaining entities that moving in the opposite direction—then we need to understand that.”