Poor continuity of care may lead to worse outcomes among patients with active inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), according to data from more than 20,000 veterans.
Even in the Veterans Health Administration health care system, which “may provide the ideal environment for care coordination,” patients with active IBD had “substantial variation” in dispersion of care, leading to more frequent surgical interventions, corticosteroid use, and hospitalizations, reported lead author Shirley Cohen-Mekelburg, MD, MS, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues.
“Health care in the United States is marked by substantial fragmentation, with patients pursuing and receiving care from multiple clinicians, often at different institutions,” the investigators wrote in JAMA Network Open. “Fragmented care has been associated with poor chronic disease outcomes, higher health care use, duplication in testing, and increased costs of care.”
In the VHA, these issues prompted creation of the Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT), a medical home model in which primary care physicians coordinate clinical teams of specialists and other health care practitioners. But coordination can be challenging with chronic medical conditions like IBD, according to Dr. Cohen-Mekelburg and colleagues.
“High-quality care for IBD includes not only disease-specific management of symptoms but also disease-specific preventive care, such as immunizations and cancer screening, to prevent associated adverse outcomes,” the investigators wrote. “Identifying which physician is responsible for managing each aspect of care requires some degree of coordination and makes patients with IBD vulnerable to care fragmentation.”
Worse outcomes tied to poor first-year continuity
To evaluate care fragmentation within the VHA, the investigators identified 20,079 veterans with IBD who had at least one outpatient encounter with the system between the beginning of 2002 and the end of 2014. Continuity of care (COC) was calculated with the Bice-Boxerman COC index, which measures how much a patient’s care is connected with a distinct physician. The investigators used the first year COC as the primary independent variable.
In the first year of care, the median COC index was 0.24 (interquartile range, 0.13-0.46). The investigators noted that this figure was lower than reported by previous studies involving patients with several other chronic conditions, including IBD.
After controlling for covariates and adjusting for facility-related clustering, the investigators found a lower COC index in the first year was associated with a higher rate of worse outcomes in the subsequent 2 years, including surgical interventions (adjusted hazard ratio, 1.72; 95% confidence interval, 1.43-2.07), hospitalizations (aHR, 1.25; 95% CI, 1.06-1.47), and outpatient flares requiring corticosteroids (aHR, 1.11; 95% CI, 1.01-1.22). Conversely, improving COC index score by 0.1 reduced risk of outpatient flare (aHR, 0.69; 95%CI, 0.58-0.82), hospitalization (aHR, 0.57; 95%CI, 0.41-0.79), and surgical intervention (aHR, 0.25; 95% CI, 0.16-0.38).
Further analyses showed that the relationship between lower COC and worse outcomes carried across measures such as baseline use of an immunomodulator or biological agent, as well as subgroups such as patients with nonsevere IBD and nonsurgical patients.
Among those treated by a VHA gastroenterologist, a lower level of COC was associated with a higher rate of surgical interventions, but not hospitalizations or outpatient flares. Physician-specific COC index scores were highest for primary care providers (0.54), followed by gastroenterologists (0.25) and surgeons (0.17). However, lower physician-specific COC scores did not translate to worse IBD outcomes.
“The level of COC among patients with IBD in the present VHA cohort was ... lower than the values described in previous studies of veterans in the VHA system, including a study of VHA-Medicare dual enrollees who were especially prone to fragmented care because of their ability to seek care both inside and outside of the VHA system,” the investigators wrote, referring to a 2018 study. “The difference in COC among patients with IBD vs. patients without IBD is likely multifactorial and may be associated with confusion about physician accountability and lack of focus on coordination in IBD multidisciplinary care. Patients with IBD require care by primary care providers, gastroenterologists, and surgeons, but the delineation of responsibility by physician is often unclear.”