Correlates of use of specialty care

Karen Kuhlthau, Rebecca M Nyman, Timothy G Ferris, Anne C Beal, James M Perrin
Pediatrics 2004, 113 (3): e249-55

OBJECTIVE: This study examines patterns of specialist use among children and adolescents by presence of a chronic condition or disability, insurance, and sociodemographic characteristics.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional analysis of national survey data, describing rates of specialist use, with logistic regressions to examine associations with having a chronic condition or disability, insurance status, and sociodemographic variables.

SETTING: The 1999 National Health Interview Survey, a nationally representative household survey.

PARTICIPANTS: Children and adolescents 2 to 17 years old.

OUTCOME: Parental/respondent reports of specialist visits based on reports of the child having seen or talked to a medical doctor who specializes in a particular medical disease or problem about the child's health during the last 12 months.

RESULTS: Thirteen percent of US children were reported as seeing a specialist in the past year. Specialist-visit rates were twice as high for children with a chronic condition or disability (26% vs 10.2%). The specialist utilization rates for children without insurance were much lower than those for insured children, but among the children who have coverage (private, Medicaid, or other), specialist-utilization rates were similar (no statistically significant difference). Results of multivariate analyses predicting the use of specialists confirm the above-mentioned findings. Additionally, they show that use of specialist care was lower among children in the middle age group, minorities, children in families between 100% and 200% of the federal poverty level, and lower parental educational levels. We found no difference in specialist-visit rates between rural- and urban-dwelling children, by family status, or by gender. Differences in specialist use by gatekeeping status are found only among subgroups.

CONCLUSIONS: The results showed that, overall, 13% of children used a specialist in a year. Among the insured, a slightly greater percentage of children used such care (15%). These numbers were slightly lower than the 18% to 28% of pediatric patients referred per year in 5 US health plans, although the sources of data and definitions of specialist use differ. Our results showed that 26% of children with a chronic condition or disability who were insured by Medicaid use a specialist. Although the data are not directly comparable, this is within the range of previous findings showing annual rates by condition of use between 24% and 59%. These findings are consistent also with greater use of many different types of health care by children with special health care needs. Medicaid-utilization rates presented here were similar also to the rates found among privately insured children and children with "other" insurance. In our earlier work examining use of specialists by children insured by Medicaid, we speculated that Medicaid-insured children might face particular difficulty with access (eg, due to transportation or language barriers). The findings presented here suggest that children insured by Medicaid had no different use of specialists than other insured children. We do not know, however, whether similar rates are appropriate. As predicted, sociodemographic differences were pronounced and followed patterns typically found for use of health services. Lower rates of specialist use by non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics remains even, controlling for chronic condition/disability, status, insurance, and socioeconomic status. This is an important issue that not only needs to be addressed in using specialist care but also in many areas in health care. It is the near poor who seem to have difficulty accessing care (as is evidenced by lower use of specialists). In a study of access to care, similar results were found, with those between 125% and 200% of the federal poverty level being less likely to have a usual source of care. This is roughly the population targeted by the State Children's Health Insurance Programs. These findings cannot determine whether rates of use are too high or too low. Additional work on outcomes for children who do and do not use specialist care would further inform the work presented here. Extending that work to examine patterns of care including but not limited to specialists and generalists would be even better.

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