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  • Research article
  • Open Access
  • Open Peer Review

Procedures performed by general practitioners and general internal medicine physicians - a comparison based on routine data from Northern Germany

BMC Family Practice201819:189

https://doi.org/10.1186/s12875-018-0878-3

  • Received: 28 August 2018
  • Accepted: 19 November 2018
  • Published:
Open Peer Review reports

Abstract

Background

In response to a rising shortage of general practitioners (GPs), physicians in general internal medicine (GIM) have become part of the German primary care physician workforce. Previous studies have shown substantial differences in practice patterns between both specialties. The aim of this study was to analyse and compare the application of procedures by German GPs and GIM physicians based on routine data.

Methods

The Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians in the federal state Schleswig-Holstein (Northern Germany) provided invoicing data of the first quarters of 2013 and 2015. Differences between GPs and GIM physicians in the implementation rate of 46 selected primary care procedures were examined by means of the Pearson χ2-test. The selection of procedures was based on international and own preliminary studies on primary care procedures.

Results

In the first quarter of 2013/2015 respectively, 1228/1227 GPs and 447/484 GIM physicians provided services in Schleswig-Holstein. Significant differences were found for 20 of the 46 procedures. GPs had higher application rates of procedures concerning health screening (e.g. adolescent health examination, well-child visits) and minor surgery. GIM physicians more often applied technology-oriented procedures, such as ultrasound scans, electrocardiograms (ECG), and 24-h ambulatory blood pressure measurements. The treatment patterns of both specialities did not vary much during the study period. Cardiac stress testing was the only significantly increased GP procedure in that time.

Conclusions

Our results suggest substantial differences in the application of procedures between GPs and GIM physicians with potential consequences for the overall primary healthcare provision. The findings could foster a discussion about training needs for procedures in primary care to ensure its comprehensiveness. The results reflect scope for changes in vocational training in the future for an effective and efficient re-allocation of primary healthcare.

Keywords

  • Procedural skills
  • Primary care
  • General internal medicine
  • General practitioner

Background

In most industrialised countries, the demand for healthcare is increasing due to an ageing population coinciding with a declining number of primary care physicians [13]. Primary care physicians are general practitioners (GPs), physicians in general internal medicine (GIM) or paediatricians who provide “care for the undifferentiated patient at the point of first contact” [4]. The range of services that primary care patients require is extensive [5]. However, according to previous studies, procedures differ considerably between GPs and GIM physicians, e.g. regarding the use of diagnostics [6], medical charges [7], prescribing [8], communication [9], provision of care for patients with common conditions [10], range of specific health needs covered [11] and patient outcomes [12].

In Germany, most primary care physicians are traditionally self-employed. However, they need an accreditation for service provision for patients within the statutory health insurance scheme that covers about 90% of the population. In 2016, around 79% of the German population visited a primary care physician at least once [13]. The distribution of physicians is regulated and allocated by the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (ASHIP), which is responsible for the accreditation process to maintain a sufficient and high-quality supply of physicians [14].

Whereas the international definition of primary care physicians includes paediatricians, the definition by the German ASHIP does not, so that the primary care physician workforce in Germany only consists of GPs and GIM physicians. By law, GPs are preferred in the accreditation process [15]. However, the declining number of GPs in the last decade has resulted in local shortages, especially in rural areas [16, 17]. In response to the rising shortage of GPs, a rise in the quota of GIM physicians providing primary care can be observed [18].

A previous study using self-assessment of GPs and GIM physicians [19] showed differences in the application of medical procedures and suggested implications for the quality and safety of primary care provision in Germany. In general, the use of survey data based on self-assessment can be problematic because of selection or response biases [20]. Influences on self-assessment such as gender, age, emotional status and recall bias have been described [2124]. Moreover, studies based on survey data are prone to selection bias [25]. In contrast, routine data present a reliable source of information that avoid selection or recall bias [26, 27]. Findings of studies based on survey data can be crosschecked by analysing routine data.

The aim of this study was to analyse and compare, based on routine data, the application of procedures by German GPs and GIM physicians. The results may subsequently allow to deduce measures to promote an effective and efficient re-allocation of primary healthcare resources.

Methods

This study is based on the analysis of routine data from the ASHIP of the federal state Schleswig-Holstein located in Northern Germany. The concentration on a specific federal state of Germany allows to reduce practice variations based on regional differences and state-specific regulations [28].

Data selection

Based on a previously consented questionnaire comprising relevant procedures in German primary care [19, 25] the research team checked the doctor’s fee scale 2015 [29] for codes addressing procedures or at least comprising procedures of the questionnaire. Both the routine data provided by the ASHIP and the data collected by the questionnaire refer to the first three months of the years 2013 and 2015 respectively. Data included the number of all billed codes of the doctor’s fee scale by all GPs and GIM physicians in the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein. The analysis concentrated on codes reflecting services with high relevance in primary care [3033]. Procedures were defined as discrete, diagnostic or therapeutic activities requiring knowledge and manual skills, performed on patients following the definition of Sylvester et al. [31]. Out of 90 possible physicians’ procedures listed in the initial questionnaire [19, 25], 46 were identified that could be employed by both GPs and GIM physicians. Table 1 shows the codes for services and whether the respective procedure is part of the training curriculum of the respective specialty.
Table 1

Assignment of the procedures to the bill codes

Code

Bill code description [29]

Procedure [25]

Part of training [45]

GP

GIM

Well-child visit

 01712

Well-child visit of the new-born during the 3rd to 10th day of life

Well-child visit

yes

no

 01713

Well-child visit during the 4th and 5th week of life “(U3)”

 01714

Well-child visit during the 3rd and 4th month of life “(U4)”

 01715

Well-child visit during the 6th and 8th month of life “(U5)”

 01716

Well-child visit during the 10th and 12th month of life “(U6)”

 01717

Well-child visit during the 21st to 24th month of life “(U7)”

 01718

Well-child visit during the 46th to 48th month of life “(U8)”

 01719

Well-child visit during the 60th to 64th month of life “(U9)”

 01723

Well-child visit during the 36th to 43rd month of life “(U7a)”

 01720

Adolescent health examination “(J1)”

Adolescent health examination

yes

no

Minor surgery

 02301

Minor surgery II: primary wound closure with sutures

Surgical suture

yes

no

Drainage of acute paronychia

yes

no

Electrocautery of skin lesion

yes

no

I&D of an abscess

yes

no

I&D of a perianal abscess

yes

no

Glueing of a wound

yes

no

 02302

Minor surgery III: excisions, treatment of ingrown toenails, phlebotomy

Removal of foreign object

yes

no

Excision of lipoma

yes

no

Partial removal of toenail

yes

no

 02310

Secondary healing wound care and/or decubital ulcer care

Wound debridement

yes

no

 02311

Diabetic foot care

 02312

Treatment of single or multiple chronic venous ulcers

 02313

Compression therapy for chronic venous insufficiency, post-thrombotic syndrome, superficial and deep vein thrombosis and/or lymphoedema

Compression therapy

no

no

Injection and infusion

 02101

Infusion

Infusion

yes

yes

 02321

Suprapubic catheter insertion

Suprapubic catheter insertion

yes

yes

 02323

Transurethral catheter insertion

Transurethral catheter insertion

yes

yes

Paracentesis and insertion

 02340

Paracentesis

Ascites paracentesis

yes

yes

Trepination of subungual haematoma

yes

no

Paracentesis of knee joint

yes

yes

Paracentesis of scapula joint

yes

yes

 02343

Trephination of pleural cavity and non-surgical pleural drainage

Thoracentesis

yes

yes

Trepination of tension pneumothorax

yes

yes

Chest tube insertion

yes

yes

Treatment of musculoskeletal disorders

 02360

Treatment under local anaesthesia

Neural therapy

yes

no

 31,910

Reduction of carpal or tarsal dislocation (distal)

Reduction of dislocated finger

noa

no

 31,912

Reduction of dislocated cubital or knee joint (distal)

Reduction of displaced fracture of the radial head

noa

no

 31,914

Reduction of dislocated cubital or knee joint (proximal)

Reduction of dislocated shoulder joint

noa

no

Instrument-based procedures

 02500

Single inhalation therapy

Preparing a nebulizer for antiobstructive therapy

no

no

 03321

Cardiac stress test

Cardiac stress test

yes

yes

 03324

24-h ambulatory blood pressure monitoring

24-h ambulatory blood pressure monitoring

yes

yes

 03330

Spirometry

Spirometry

yes

yes

 03331

Proctoscopy

Proctoscopy

yes

yes

 03335

Exploratory audiometry after previously documented, hearing test anomalies

Diagnostic audiometer test

no

no

 33012

Thyroid sonography B-scan

Thyroid sonography thyroid

yes

yes

 33042

Abdominal sonography B-scan

Abdominal sonography

yes

yes

 33060

Sonographic examination of extracranial cerebral vessels, the periorbital arteries, subclavian arteries and vertebral arteries by CW-Doppler

Doppler ultrasound of brain-supplying vessels

yes

yes

 33061

CW Doppler sonography of limb blood vessels, at least 3 transducer locations per limb

Compression sonography of lower extremities

yes

yes

 33076

Limb vein B-scan sonography at least 8 transducer locations

Laboratory diagnostic procedures

 32031

Microscopic urinalysis for morphological components

Microscopic urinalysis

yes

yes

 32040

Faecal occult blood test in 3 samples

Faecal occult blood test

yes

yes

 01734

Examination for faecal occult blood according to stage D.-III of the early detection of cancer-guideline, including costs

 32045

microscopic examination of bodily material

Examine a native sample for funghi

yes

yes

Emergency medicine

 01220

Resuscitation

Mask ventilation

yes

yes

 01221

Supplement to Resuscitation (Coniotomy and / or Endotracheal Intubation)

Endotracheal intubation

yes

yes

 01222

Supplement to Resuscitation (defibrillation)

Defibrillation

yes

yes

Gynaecology

 01830

Insertion of intrauterine device

insertion of intrauterine device

no

no

 01730

Cancer screening for women

Gynaecological examination

no

no

 01825

Cervical smear test

Cervical smear test

no

no

aThese procedures are part of the mandatory 6-month surgical training during GP vocational training

Statistical analysis

Differences in the application of a specific procedure by GPs and GIM physicians as well as differences between the two study periods were analysed by means of the Pearson χ2-test. All tests of significance were two-tailed and were corrected using the Bonferroni method to counteract the problem of multiple comparisons [34]. A p-value < 0.05 was considered as statistically significant. Statistical analyses were performed with MATLAB software, version 9.4 (R2018a) (The MathWorks, Natick, MA, USA).

Results

In the first quarter of 2013, 1228 GPs and 447 GIM physicians provided services in Schleswig-Holstein. In 2015, the number of GPs remained unchanged (1227), while the number of GIM physicians had increased to 484. There are no substantial differences between the number of distinct fee scale codes submitted by GPs and GIM physicians. For both specialities the overall number of services invoiced and the physicians’ average of services invoiced have increased over the time frame by 37.7% and 27.2%, respectively. The percentages of the total number of codes reflecting the selected procedures are relatively small and have declined slightly over the study period (2015: 2% (GP) and 2.7% (GIM)). Table 2 shows the number of physicians, the number of distinct service codes, the total number of codes invoiced and other statistics for both years and specialties.
Table 2

Descriptive Statistics

year

2013

2015

change (in %)

specialty

GP

GIM

GP

GIM

GP

GIM

physicians

1228

447

1227

484

−0.1

8.3

number of fee scale codes invoiced

697

613

683

675

−2.0

10.1

total number of codes invoiced by all physicians

6,752,667

2,499,625

8,856,848

3,442,080

31.2

37.7

total number of codes invoiced per physician

5498.9

5592.0

7218.3

7111.7

31.3

27.2

total number of codes invoiced by all physicians reflecting selected procedures

179,095

85,413

180,779

93,286

0.9

9.2

percentage of the total number of codes reflecting selected procedures (in %)

2.7

3.4

2.0

2.7

−23.0

−20.7

There are several significant differences between GIM physicians and GPs with regard to the application of specific procedures. Of note are the higher GP figures for health screening services, especially adolescent health examination and well-child visits. The number of minor surgery procedures performed by GPs is also significantly higher. These include primary and secondary wound healing, excisions, treatment of ingrown toenails and phlebotomy. Procedures performed to a higher extent by GMI physicians are in general based on more technical approaches, i.e. services using ultrasound diagnostics or an electrocardiogram (ECG). Another service that is significantly more frequently performed by GIM physicians than GPs is the long-term blood pressure measurement. In general, the treatment patterns of both specialties did not vary much over the time frame. Cardiac stress testing was the only procedure by GPs that saw an increase in the study period. The proportions of GPs and GIM physicians performing a specific procedure in the study periods of 2013 and 2015 are shown in Tables 3 and 4 with the respective p-values for group differences. For ease of illustration, procedures which were applied by less than 1% of physicians are not shown.
Table 3

Application rates of general practitioners (GPs) and general internal medicine (GIM) physicians for procedures performed to a greater extent by GPs (in %)

Code

Description

2013

2015

GP (n = 1228)

GIM (n = 447)

p-value*

GP (n = 1227)

GIM (n = 484)

p-value*

02310

Secondary healing wound care and/or decubital ulcer care

60.4

43.6

< 0.001

64.6

44.0

< 0.001

02301

Minor surgery II: primary wound closure with sutures

39.0

13.4

< 0.001

37.8

16.7

< 0.001

01734

Examination for faecal occult blood according to stage D.-III of the early detection of cancer-guideline, including costs

27.2

22.1

n.s.

27.9

24.8

n.s.

01720

Adolescent health examination “(J1)”

27.1

13.9

< 0.001

25.5

9.5

< 0.001

02312

Treatment of single or multiple chronic venous ulcers

23.2

17.4

n.s.

23.5

17.8

n.s.

01718

Well-child visit during the 46th to 48th month of life “(U8)”

13.8

2.5

< 0.001

12.2

1.2

< 0.001

01719

Well-child visit during the 60th to 64th month of life “(U9)”

13.6

2.0

< 0.001

13.9

1.4

< 0.001

02302

Minor surgery III: excisions, treatment of ingrown toenails, phlebotomy

13.0

2.0

< 0.001

12.1

2.1

< 0.001

01723

Well-child visit during the 43rd to 36th month of life “(U7a)”

10.9

1.6

< 0.001

11.8

1.7

< 0.001

01717

Well-child visit during the 21st to 24th month of life “(U7)”

10.6

0.9

< 0.001

10.2

1.0

< 0.001

01716

Well-child visit during the 10th and 12th month of life “(U6)”

10.3

1.8

< 0.001

8.6

1.2

< 0.001

01715

Well-child visit during the 6th and 8th month of life “(U5)”

8.3

1.3

< 0.001

8.2

1.2

< 0.001

01714

Well-child visit during the 3rd and 4th month of life “(U4)”

8.1

1.1

< 0.001

7.1

1.2

< 0.001

01713

Well-child visit during the 4th and 5th week of life “(U3)”

6.4

0.9

< 0.001

6.4

0.6

< 0.001

02500

Single inhalation therapy

5.3

2.5

n.s.

4.9

2.3

n.s.

03335

Exploratory audiometry after previously documented, hearing test anomalies

3.7

1.6

n.s.

3.1

0.8

n.s.

01730

Cancer screening for women

3.2

0.0

0.010

1.8

0.0

n.s.

01712

Well-child visit of the new-born during the 3rd to 10th day of life

2.5

0.0

n.s.

2.4

0.2

n.s.

*Bonferroni correction

only procedures with percentages larger than 1.0% for at least one specialty are shown

bold percentages indicate a significant difference between 2013 and 2015 (at the 5% level)

n.s. not significant (at the 5% level)

Table 4

Application rates of general practitioners (GPs) and general internal medicine (GIM) physicians for procedures performed to a greater extent by GIM physicians (in %)

Code

Description

2013

2015

GP (n = 1228)

GIM (n = 447)

p-value*

GP (n = 1227)

GIM (n = 484)

p-value*

03330

Spirometry

80.5

82.3

n.s.

80.1

83.7

n.s.

03324

24-h ambulatory blood pressure monitoring

72.2

82.8

< 0.001

74.2

82.9

0.011

32040

Faecal occult blood test in 3 samples

68.5

70.0

n.s.

66.0

66.9

n.s.

33042

Abdominal sonography B-scan

52.9

91.1

< 0.001

51.6

89.3

< 0.001

03321

Cardiac stress test

45.5

79.6

< 0.001

52.6

82.4

< 0.001

32031

Microscopic urinalysis for morphological components

37.8

41.6

n.s.

34.5

34.9

n.s.

33012

Thyroid sonography B-scan

21.4

73.6

< 0.001

21.5

75.4

< 0.001

02313

Compression therapy for chronic venous insufficiency, post-thrombotic syndrome, superficial and deep vein thrombosis and/or lymphoedema

15.8

16.1

n.s.

20.7

19.8

n.s.

03331

Proctoscopy

6.4

7.4

n.s.

5.2

7.2

n.s.

02311

Diabetic foot care

6.2

10.1

n.s.

5.5

9.9

n.s.

33061

CW Doppler sonography of limb blood vessels, at least 3 transducer locations per limb

1.6

8.5

< 0.001

1.5

7.2

< 0.001

33060

Sonographic examination of extracranial cerebral vessels, the periorbital arteries, subclavian arteries and vertebral arteries by CW-Doppler

1.1

3.6

0.036

1.1

3.3

n.s.

01220

Resuscitation

0.7

1.1

n.s.

1.1

0.0

n.s.

33076

Limb vein B-scan sonography at least 8 transducer locations

0.3

8.7

< 0.001

0.6

9.3

< 0.001

*Bonferroni correction

only procedures with percentages larger than 1.0% for at least one specialty are shown

bold percentages indicate a significant difference between 2013 and 2015 (at the 5% level)

n.s. not significant (at the 5% level)

Discussion

The comprehensiveness of general practice in the provision of primary healthcare [35] and its coordinating role in referring patients across the individual healthcare sectors [36, 37] determine the strength of primary care, since both factors have positive effects on health outcomes, equality and overall efficiency in healthcare systems [3843]. Therefore, GPs traditionally received training focusing on treating the whole person through all stages of life [44]. The curriculum of GPs in Schleswig-Holstein includes working in primary care, i.e. private practices for at least 24 months. In contrast, the training of internal medicine physicians happens entirely in the hospital setting [45].

We analysed differences in patterns of procedures performed by German GPs and GMI physicians based on routine data collected by ASHIP for the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein over two distinct time periods in 2013 and 2015. In total, 1227 GPs and 484 GIM physicians were looked at in 2015. This cohort represented about 3.5% of all GPs and GIM physicians practising in Germany in 2015 [18]. The ratio of codes billed per specialty (GPs: 72% (73%) and GIM physicians: 28% (27%) in 2015 (2013)) are nearly identical for both specialties and years to the respective nation-wide proportions of cases treated and codes billed in primary care [46, 47]. Furthermore, the differences over the time frame underline the rising significance of GIM physicians in the provision of primary care in Germany.

The results show substantial differences between GPs and GIM physicians in the application rates of most of the identified procedures. In general, procedures with higher application rates by GPs tend to be more advisory and concern the prevention of health problems. In contrast, procedures with higher application rates by GMI physicians are to a greater extent technically orientated. These results are consistent with findings of previous studies [7, 12, 19].

In 2015, for example, more than 25% of GPs performed health visits for adolescents. In contrast, less than 10% of GIM physicians performed this procedure. Well-child visits show similar differences. These figures reflect a wider range in the age of patients treated by GPs compared to GIM physicians. Health services for children are also provided by paediatricians [48]. In German rural areas, however, a shortage of paediatricians leads to children’s healthcare services being delivered by GPs or GIM physicians [49]. Moreover, rural areas are particularly affected by the declining number of GPs. Therefore, GIM physicians stand a higher chance of accreditation in rural areas to counteract the shortage of GPs. Our results suggest that GMI physicians practising in rural areas need to get involved in children’s and adolescents’ healthcare services in order to safeguard a high quality of service provision.

Some of the procedures dealing with health screening of adults have also significantly higher application shares for GPs. This is in line with findings of previous studies, that GPs place more emphasis on preventive services [7, 12]. Recent studies highlight the positive effects of preventive care on the reduction of hospital admissions and emergency department visits [5052]. In Germany, the increasing number of non-urgent emergency department visits has resulted in overstretched emergency facilities with negative effects on quality and effectiveness of the emergency care provision [5355]. Especially in rural areas with relatively high proportions of elderly people [56] and limited public transport to gain access to primary healthcare provision [57] emergency departments tend to compensate for the lack of primary care physicians [58, 59]. This study found that a significantly smaller percentage of GIM physicians provided preventive services. Therefore, an increase in the overall number of GIM physicians is likely to result in a decrease in the provision of preventive services. This points to a need for the inclusion of preventive medicine in the curriculum for the future training of GIM physicians and postgraduate training for GIM physicians, especially for those practising in rural areas.

Most of the procedures involving minor surgery show significantly higher application rates for GPs. Minor surgery is largely part of the vocational training scheme of GPs as opposed to the training of GIM physicians [45]. Advantages of providing minor surgery in a primary care setting include improved access to surgical care for patients, reduced waiting times and improved patient satisfaction [60]. Although evidence about the quality and cost effectiveness is mixed [61], there are international studies that suggest lower referral rates to secondary care if minor surgery procedures had been performed by GPs [62]. Furthermore, only small differences have been observed between the quality of minor surgery procedures carried out in primary and secondary care setting. In any case, patient satisfaction for minor surgery procedures performed in primary care has been higher [63]. The data show a slightly but insignificant increase over time of GIM physicians offering minor surgery procedures, resulting in a narrowing of the gap between both specialties. However, in order to boost this development, a reassessment of GIM physicians’ vocational training programmes should focus on minor surgical procedures.

Similar to previous findings [7, 12, 64] a more technical orientation of GIM physicians was observed in this study. Moreover, GIM physicians had significantly higher shares for procedures that, in Germany, are close to the specialty of internal medicine, e.g. ultrasound diagnostics, cardiac stress testing and 24-h blood pressure monitoring. This is not surprising due to the exclusive emphasis on internal medicine in the GIM physicians’ training. A previous study showed that German GPs practising in rural areas perform a larger number of distinct procedures compared with GPs in urban areas [25], indicating that they may offset a lack of specialists. This is in line with the findings of Starfield et al. [11] that patients in the US who have a GP as their primary care physician see fewer specialists. The ability to perform a wider range of specialist procedures should be trained for both GPs and GIM physicians, especially for those who practise in rural areas.

In summary, our results suggest substantial differences in the application of procedures between GPs and GIM physicians with potential consequences for primary healthcare provision in general. Most of the differences correlate with differences in the training programmes. As only about 30% of the consultations in primary care practice relate to internal medicine [65], the findings could foster a discussion about training needs for procedures in primary care to ensure its comprehensiveness. The results reflect scope for changes in vocational training in the future. On the other hand, GIM physicians have the opportunity to train their procedural skills, e.g. by attending the educational seminars accompanying the post-graduate training for GPs. These seminars have been defined by the German College of General Practice and Family Physicians (DEGAM) as a core element to improve trainees’ specific knowledge and competencies [66]. From the beginning, the trainees attend training courses preparing for the specific requirements of independent medical work, especially in rural regions.

Beyond training, economic incentives may also reduce the differences in the application of procedures between GPs and GIM physicians. In general, the use of financial incentives is considered to control the physician’s behaviour [67, 68]. Improving the billing options and financial rewards for specific procedures (e.g. preventive care or minor surgeries) might encourage primary care physicians to perform these procedures more often. The explicit effect of changes in the reimbursement on the application of procedures is an interesting issue for future research.

Strengths and limitations

The study highlights the difference in services provided by GPs and GIM physicians and provides suggestions about emphases for residency trainings and future efforts for an effective and efficient re-allocation of primary healthcare.

The study has strengths as well as limitations. A strength of this study is that it relies on routine data collected for all GPs and GIM physicians in a specific region of Germany. There are no issues related to any selection or response bias, as might be the case when survey data are used [20]. Social desirability bias might play a particular role when surveying physicians about their services. On the one hand, focusing on the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein constrains the representativeness of the findings, on the other hand, this reduces practice variations based on regional differences and state-specific regulations [28]. Furthermore, this study shows only unconditional differences between both specialties. The age, gender, experience and regional characteristics of the physician may also determine the probability of specific services being provided [25]. Moreover, we cannot control for the patient mix. Unfortunately, for Germany there is no evidence available about the differences in the patient mix between GPs and GIM physicians. In Germany, patients can freely choose their doctor. Although an increasing use of physician-rating websites can be observed [69, 70] most patients consult the nearest primary care physician [66]. For example, in the US, only half of the primary care patients know whether their doctor has been trained as a GP or GIM physician [67]. Therefore, we conclude that the specialty of the primary care physician does not have a strong effect on the patient’s physician choice in Germany either. Moreover, the study considered differences between the percentages of physicians performing a specific procedure even when only performed once. This measure will be relatively robust against moderate differences in the patient mix. However, future studies analysing practice style patterns of GIM physicians and GPs should be based on a country-wide dataset and take into account regional and personal characteristics, as well as patient mix information.

Another limitation is that most of the procedures applied by GIM physicians and GPs are not directly represented by the schedule of service codes. This has resulted in a limited number of procedures that were analysed. Moreover, opportunistic practices to increase the reimbursement might lead to billing of services that are not actually performed. Another limitation is given by potential differences between GPs and GIM physicians in their knowledge about how to bill specific procedures. Since GIM physicians do not necessarily need to pass through training in private practices, they may have different awareness or prioritisation in regard to billing. However, in comparison with the use of survey data about procedures applied and the related problems mentioned above, these issues may be negligible.

A further limitation is that the ASHIP is in charge only for the reimbursement of services that are provided to patients within the statutory health insurance system. Services provided to privately insured patients are not covered by the underlying dataset. There are large differences between the service provision for privately and statutorily insured patients [71]. Since the dataset covers 85% of the population of Schleswig-Holstein [72], this is regarded as a minor limitation. However, the effect of the health insurance status on service provision may represent an interesting topic for future research.

Conclusion

This study shows substantial differences in the application of procedures between GPs and GIM physicians with potential consequences for the overall primary healthcare provision. Most of the differences are explainable with differences in the training programmes between both specialties. These findings could foster a discussion that primary care physicians should uniformly master relevant procedures in primary care and reflect scope for changes in vocational training in the future.

Abbreviations

ASHIP: 

Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians

DEGAM: 

German College of General Practice and Family Physicians

ECG: 

Electrocardiograms

GIM: 

Physicians in general internal medicine

GP: 

General practitioner

Declarations

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Uwe Köppen and Andrea Strathausen for proofreading the manuscript.

Funding

No external funding was used for this study.

Availability of data and materials

The data from this study are not available for public use, as the data are owned by the ASHIP and the authors are not allowed to share the data with third parties.

Authors’ contributions

CS, KF and JS were involved in the conception and design of the study. KF assigned the procedures to the bill codes. TE extracted and cleaned the data. CS and KF carried out the statistical analysis. CS, KF and JS interpreted the data. CS produced the first draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed to and approved the final manuscript.

Ethics approval and consent to participate

The data stem from an administrative database and the data were anonymous. Ethical approval was not necessary for this study as the professional code of doctors states that the collection of anonymous data requires no ethical approval [73].

Consent for publication

Not applicable

Competing interests

JS is general practitioner; the other authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Institute of Family Medicine, University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein, Campus Luebeck, Ratzeburger Allee 160, 23538 Luebeck, Germany
(2)
Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians of the Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein, Bismarckallee 1-6, 23795 Bad Segeberg, Germany

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Copyright

© The Author(s). 2018

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