JOURNAL ARTICLE

Medical overuse and quaternary prevention in primary care - A qualitative study with general practitioners

Kathrin Alber, Thomas Kuehlein, Angela Schedlbauer, Susann Schaffer
BMC Family Practice 2017 December 8, 18 (1): 99
29216841

BACKGROUND: Medical overuse is a topic of growing interest in health care systems and especially in primary care. It comprises both over investigation and overtreatment. Quaternary prevention strategies aim at protecting patients from unnecessary or harmful medicine. The objective of this study was to gain a deeper understanding of relevant aspects of medical overuse in primary care from the perspective of German general practitioners (GPs). We focused on the scope, consequences and drivers of medical overuse and strategies to reduce it (=quaternary prevention).

METHODS: We used the qualitative Grounded Theory approach. Theoretical sampling was carried out to recruit GPs in Bavaria, Germany. We accessed the field of research through GPs with academic affiliation, recommendations by interview partners and personal contacts. They differed in terms of primary care experience, gender, region, work experience abroad, academic affiliation, type of specialist training, practice organisation and position. Qualitative in-depth face-to-face interviews with a semi-structured interview guide were conducted (n = 13). The interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim. Data analysis was carried out using open and axial coding.

RESULTS: GPs defined medical overuse as unnecessary investigations and treatment that lack patient benefit or bear the potential to cause harm. They observed that medical overuse takes place in all three German reimbursement categories: statutory health insurance, private insurance and individual health services (direct payment). GPs criticised the poor acceptance of gate-keeping in German primary care. They referred to a low-threshold referral policy and direct patient access to outpatient secondary care, leading to specialist treatment without clear medical indication. The GPs described various direct drivers of medical overuse within their direct area of influence. They also emphasised indirect drivers related to system or societal processes. The proposed strategies for reducing medical overuse included a well-founded wait-and-see approach, medical education, a trustful doctor-patient relationship, the improvement of primary/health care structures and the involvement of patients and society.

CONCLUSIONS: GPs are frequently located at the starting point of the diagnostic and treatment process. They have the potential to play a vital role in quaternary prevention. This requires a debate going beyond the medical profession and involving society as a whole.

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