Ultrasound in Annual Medicare Wellness Visits?

Medicare Part B covers many preventive services, such as screenings, shots or vaccines, and yearly Wellness visits, in which a patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature are evaluated. But, would it be beneficial to add an ultrasound examination?

A team that performs these Wellness visits in a clinic sought to determine whether adding a screening ultrasound examination to the visits would be beneficial for the patients. Six primary care providers, all with advanced ultrasound training, and one ultrasound examiner began a study to find out.

After screening potential patients for the study, each eligible patient gave their consent to be in the study. Note, because their pool of eligible Medicare patients had the following characteristics, they did not represent the nation-wide average:

  • Were at least 65 years old, but not over 85 years;
  • Tended to live independently in an affluent area;
  • Had relatively healthy lifestyles;
  • Had prior access to healthcare;
  • Did not have a documented CT scan of the abdomen or formal echocardiogram in the previous 2 years; and
  • Did not have greater than stage 1 obesity.

Each of the 108 participants underwent an ultrasound examination of the carotid arteries, the heart, and the abdomen, targeting important abnormalities of elderly patients. The patients were not charged for the ultrasound examination.

After the examination, the ultrasound examiner and the primary care provider reviewed the results, discussed them with the patient, and coordinated any needed follow-up care, including 30 follow-up diagnostic items. The patient then completed a 5-question survey about their experience with the ultrasound examination.

Six months later, after the patient’s next Wellness visit, the primary care provider reviewed the patient’s medical record for any follow-up based on the results of the ultrasound examination and assigned each of the 283 abnormalities detected via ultrasound a “benefit score” ranging from –4 (no short-term or potential long-term benefit but serious negative impact occurred because of subsequent care) to 4 (critical clinical benefit, worth all subsequent care). The primary care provider determined the score based on the Medicare reimbursement value of all care received as a result of the ultrasound examination.

Combining the survey results and the abnormality scores, the primary care provider then determined each patient’s net benefit score.

Of all of the abnormalities found, the majority would not have been detected by a traditional physical examination. And although none of them were considered life-threatening, they were frequently markers of chronic conditions, so the primary care provider considered their discovery to be mild to moderately positive.

In conclusion, the study found abnormalities in 94% of the participants. However, only about half of all of the Wellness patients (not just those who participated in the study) would meet the criteria for a screening ultrasound examination, so the examination could not be added to all Wellness visits. For those who qualified, however, in a setting with primary care providers who are experts in ultrasound, the benefit of the examination was rarely negative and often mild to moderately positive, including identifying some new chronic conditions.

To read more about this study, download the Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine article, “An Ultrasound Screening Exam During Medicare Wellness Visits May Be Beneficial” by Terry K. Rosborough, MD, et al. Members of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine can access it for free. Join today!

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