RVUs: A Fair Measure of Your Productivity?

Alok S. Patel, MD


October 11, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

The other day, I received a flowery, elaborate email from none other than a physician recruiter: "Beautiful parks, hiking, great schools, blah blah blah, worked RVU production bonus on top of base pay."

That last part — RVUs. I'm lost. I hear mixed reviews from physicians who work in RVU-based systems. The entire thing seems overly complex and confusing, so let's clear it up. I did my research, and in this quick video I'm going to explain RVUs.

Types of RVUs

RVUs, or relative value units, are a standard set by Medicare, used to measure physician productivity and ultimately determine compensation. There are three types:

  • Work RVUs (basically everything that happens during a patient encounter)

  • Practice expense RVUs

  • Professional liability insurance RVUs

Now, envision this equation. All three of those RVUs are each multiplied by a geographic practice cost index to come up with a total number, and then that is multiplied by the Medicare conversion factor, which right now is around $33 to $34, to come up with a total dollar amount.

Work RVUs make up the bulk of total RVUs and they get their value from CPT codes. That value is determined by CMS. The AMA's Relative Value Scale Update Committee, or RUC, which is made up of 32 people from various medical and surgical subspecialties, regularly meets and makes recommendations on the value of various CPT codes.

Is Specialty Representation Fair and Balanced?

CMS historically has accepted a high percentage of RUC's recommendations, so this is a very influential committee. This is also why RUC has led to some controversy, with some stating that there is a lack of primary care representation, and perhaps this is why CPT codes related to procedures tend to reimburse higher.

How does one weigh the value of an hour-long palliative conversation against the quick removal of a benign skin lesion? That's a loaded question.

Knowing the ins and outs of RVUs can help you understand how your productivity is being measured. This is especially important if your salary, or at least part of it, is determined by total RVUs. You want to have a sense of the pros and cons of working in an RVU system and how this relates to your specialty, your practice, and your schedule.

An RVU-based system provides an objective measure on complex patient encounters, volume, and procedures, and it's a somewhat unified measure. The cons are pretty clear because these models favor you seeing many patients and billing a lot, and often this favors employers over physicians.

Now, questions for you: Do you think RVUs are a fair representation of our productivity? Is the AMA's committee, the RUC, representative? We want to hear what you think.

Alok S. Patel, MD, is a pediatric hospitalist, television producer, media contributor, and digital health enthusiast. He splits his time between New York City and San Francisco, as he is on faculty at Columbia University/Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital and UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital. He hosts The Hospitalist Retort video blog on Medscape.

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