COMMENTARY

Changes Required for Gynecologic Surgeons to Achieve Greater Pay Equity

Barbara S. Levy, MD

March 31, 2021

In a recent commentary published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, Katie L. Watson, JD, and Louise P. King, MD, JD, describe the issue of "double discrimination" in gynecologic surgery. The authors outlined how lower pay in a specialty where a majority of the surgeons and all of the patients are women may impact quality of care.

The commentary raises a number of concerns in gynecologic surgery that are important to discuss. Ob.gyn. as a whole is underpaid, as are many nonprocedural specialties such as family medicine and internal medicine. When ob.gyns. were predominantly men, the same situation existed – ob.gyns. were paid less than many other procedural specialties. While we've come a long way from the relative value unit (RVU) originally determined from the Harvard studies 30 years ago, there is room for additional improvement.

Several rationales were proposed by the authors to explain the disparities in pay between gynecologic surgery and those in urology: patient gender, surgeon gender, and length of training for gynecologic surgeons. The authors cited comparisons between urology and gynecology regarding "anatomically similar, sex-specific procedures" which require closer examination. Many of the code pairs selected were not actually comparable services. For example, management of Peyronie's disease is a highly complex treatment performed by urologists that is not comparable with vaginectomy, yet this is an example of two codes used in the reference cited by the authors to conclude that surgeries on women are undervalued.

The overall RVUs for a procedure are also dependent upon the global period. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services designated RVUs as the total amount of work before, during, and after a procedure. If a surgery has a 90-day global period, all the work for 90 days thereafter is bundled into the value, whereas if something is a zero-day global, only that day's work is counted. A gynecologic surgeon who sees a patient back two or three times is coding and billing for those encounters in addition to that initial procedure.

Many of the code comparisons used in the analysis of gender in RVUs compared services with different global periods. Finally, some of the services that were compared had vastly different utilization. Some of the services and codes that were compared are performed extremely rarely and for that reason have not had their values reassessed over the years. There may be inequities in the RVUs for these services, but they will account for extremely little in overall compensation.

As a former chair of the American Medical Association's RVS Update Committee (RUC), I spent years attempting to revalue ob.gyn. procedures. CMS assigns work RVUs based on physician work, practice expense, and professional liability insurance. The work is calculated using total physician time and intensity based on surveys completed by the specialty. The American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologist's Committee on Health Economics and Coding, and the AMA RUC have worked diligently over many years to reassess potentially misvalued services. The ultimate RVUs assigned by CMS for gynecologic surgery are determined by the surveys completed by ACOG members. One issue we encountered with reexamining some procedures under RBRVS is that they have become so low volume that it has been difficult to justify the cost and effort to revalue them.

Lack of Ob.Gyn. Training Isn't the Full Story

On average, ob.gyns. have between 18 and 24 months of surgical training, which is significantly less than other specialties. Lack of training in gynecologic surgery was proposed as another explanation for reduced compensation among female gynecologic surgeons. This is a complex issue not adequately explained by training time for gynecologic surgeons alone. While the number of trained ob.gyns. has increased in recent decades, the surgical volume has diminished and the workload of gynecologic surgery is far lower than it used to be. Surgical volume during and after training was much higher 35 years ago, prior to the advancements of procedures like endometrial ablation or tubal ligation. Women who had finished childbearing often underwent vaginal hysterectomies to manage contraception along with various other conditions.

With the advent of minimally invasive surgery, laparoscopic sterilization became possible, which has reduced the number of hysterectomies performed. Endometrial ablation is an office-based, noninvasive procedure. The development of the levonorgestrel IUD has helped manage abnormal bleeding, further reducing the need for hysterectomy.

This reduction in surgical volume does have an impact on quality of care. The model of tracking surgical outcomes at Kaiser Health System, as mentioned by the authors, could work well in some, but not all centers. A more approachable solution to address surgical volume for the average ob.gyn. would be to implement a mentoring and coaching process whereby recently trained ob.gyns. assist their senior partner(s) in surgery. This was the model years ago: I was trained by an ob.gyn. who was trained as a general surgeon. It was through the experience of assisting on each one of his cases – and him assisting on each one of my cases – that I received incredibly thorough surgical training.

These changes in practice, however, do not impact reimbursement. Rather than discrimination based on the gender of the surgeon, lower salaries in ob.gyn. are more likely to be the result of these and other factors.

The Wage and Quality Gap in Ob.Gyn.

As a predominantly female surgical specialty, some of the disparity between gynecology and urology could be explained by how each specialty values its work. Here, gender plays a role in that when ob.gyns. are surveyed during the RUC process they may undervalue their work by reporting they can perform a procedure (and the before and after care) faster than what a urologist reports. The survey results may then result in lower RVUs.

Ob.gyn. is an overpopulated specialty for the number of surgeons needed to manage the volume of gynecologic surgery. When a health system wants to hire a general ob.gyn., it doesn't have trouble finding one, while urologists are more challenging to recruit. This is not because of the structure of resource-based relative value scale (RBRVS) – despite the overall RVUs for gynecologic surgery, gynecologic oncologists are often paid well because health systems need them – but rather to the market economy of hiring physicians in specialty areas where there is demand.

Women are also chronically undervalued for the hours that we spend with patients. Data show that we spend more time with patients, which does not generate as many RVUs, but it generates better outcomes for patients. Evidence shows that women doctors in internal medicine and family medicine have better outcomes than doctors who are men.

On Jan. 1, 2021, Medicare and other payers implemented a new structure to reporting the level of office visit based on either medical decision-making or time spent on the date of encounter. Time spent with patients will now be rewarded – increased RVUs for increased time.

Part of the solution is value-based medicine and moving away from counting RVUs. This is also an opportunity to look at where time is spent in general ob.gyn. training and redistribute it, focusing on what trainees need for their education and not what hospitals need to service labor and delivery. We should step back and look creatively at optimizing the education and the training of ob.gyns., and where possible utilize other health care professionals such as nurse practitioners and midwives to address the uncomplicated obstetric needs of the hospital which could free up ob.gyn. trainees to obtain further surgical education.

To be clear, gender discrimination in compensation is prevalent and a persistent problem in medicine – ob.gyn. is no exception. Many ob.gyns. are employed by large health systems with payment structures and incentives that don't align with those of the physician or the patient. There is definite misalignment in the way salaries are determined. Transparency on salaries is a critical component of addressing the pay gap that exists between women and men in medicine and in other industries.

The pay gap as it relates to reimbursement for gynecologic surgery, however, is a more complex matter that relates to how the RBRVS system was developed nearly 30 years ago when gynecologic surgery was not predominantly performed by women.

Barbara S. Levy, MD, is a voluntary clinical professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at University of California San Diego Health, the former vice president of health policy at ACOG, past chair of the AMA/RUC, and current voting member of the AMA CPT editorial panel. She reported no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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