To compare change over time in symptoms of depression and limitations in role and physical functioning of patients receiving prepaid or fee-for-service care within and across clinician specialties.
Observational study of change in outcomes over 2 years for 617 depressed patients of psychiatrists, psychologists, other therapists, and general medical clinicians in three urban sites in the United States.
Psychiatrists treated psychologically sicker patients than other clinicians in all payment types. Among psychiatrists' patients, those initially receiving prepaid care acquired new limitations in role/physical functioning over time, while those receiving fee-for-service care did not. This finding was most striking in independent practice associations but varied by site and organization. Patients of psychiatrists were more likely to use antidepressant medication than were patients of other clinicians, but among psychiatrists' patients, there was a sharp decline over time in the use of such medication in prepaid compared with fee-for-service care. Outcomes did not differ by payment type for depressed patients of other specialty groups, or overall.
Depressed patients of psychiatrists merit policy interest owing to their high levels of psychological sickness. For these patients, functioning outcomes were poorer in some prepaid organizations. The nonexperimental evidence favors (but cannot prove) an explanation based on care received, such as a reduction in medications, rather than on preexisting sickness differences.