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Incorporating statistical uncertainty in the use of physician cost profiles

John L Adams1, Elizabeth A McGlynn1, J William Thomas2 and Ateev Mehrotra34*

Author Affiliations

1 RAND, Santa Monica, CA, USA

2 Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME, USA

3 Division of General Internal Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

4 RAND, 4570 Fifth Avenue, Suite 600, Pittsburgh, PA 15213-2665, USA

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BMC Health Services Research 2010, 10:57  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-10-57

Published: 5 March 2010



Physician cost profiles (also called efficiency or economic profiles) compare the costs of care provided by a physician to his or her peers. These profiles are increasingly being used as the basis for policy applications such as tiered physician networks. Tiers (low, average, high cost) are currently defined by health plans based on percentile cut-offs which do not account for statistical uncertainty. In this paper we compare the percentile cut-off method to another method, using statistical testing, for identifying high-cost or low-cost physicians.


We created a claims dataset of 2004-2005 data from four Massachusetts health plans. We employed commercial software to create episodes of care and assigned responsibility for each episode to the physician with the highest proportion of professional costs. A physicians' cost profile was the ratio of the sum of observed costs divided by the sum of expected costs across all assigned episodes. We discuss a new method of measuring standard errors of physician cost profiles which can be used in statistical testing. We then assigned each physician to one of three cost categories (low, average, or high cost) using two methods, percentile cut-offs and a t-test (p-value ≤ 0.05), and assessed the level of disagreement between the two methods.


Across the 8689 physicians in our sample, 29.5% of physicians were assigned a different cost category when comparing the percentile cut-off method and the t-test. This level of disagreement varied across specialties (17.4% gastroenterology to 45.8% vascular surgery).


Health plans and other payers should incorporate statistical uncertainty when they use physician cost-profiles to categorize physicians into low or high-cost tiers.