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Med Care. 1996 Sep;34(9):931-53.

The relationship between resource constraints and physician problem solving. Implications for improving the process of care.

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Department of Health Services Organization and Policy, Wichita State University, Kansas 67260-0043, USA.



Research suggests that physicians will engage in more vigilant problem-solving under conditions of resource constraints than under conditions of resource slack. Increased vigilance related to physicians' clinical strategies enhances care by disposing physicians toward more optimal care choices. The authors examine whether pressures for clinical resource constraints encourage increased and sustained vigilance in problem-solving among cardiologists treating acute myocardial infarction.


The physician problem-solving process is reconstructed from the medical records of all eligible cases of acute myocardial infarction treated by the physician sample set over a 6-year period. The sample period encompasses phases of both resource slack and resource constraints. The Herfindahl index is used to measure the relative amount of vigilant problem-solving activity exhibited in each of five major tactical areas of the physician care strategies in each year of the study.


The results support the hypothesis that resource constraints initially promote a shift to increased vigilance in physician problem-solving. Only one of the five major tactical areas, however, is characterized by sustained vigilance over time. The other areas are, instead, associated with a substantial reduction in vigilant activity after the initial peak period.


The results suggest that resource constraints do set the stage for improved clinical decision-making. Sustained vigilance, however, appears to apply only to those portions of the care strategy for which the physician can draw a clear link between optimizing clinical activity and reducing resource consumption. For those portions of the care strategy for which the physician cannot establish a clear link, ongoing pressures to conserve resources results in reduced vigilance and a potential reduction in quality of clinical decision-making.

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