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What is the patient load sweet spot for direct primary care physicians?

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When an independent physician converts the practice to the direct primary care (DPC) model, the provider knows that some patients will not follow. That is actually ideal for the DPC’s patient panel size. The DPC provider typically decides to pursue the model for the practice because the patient panel is smaller and the provider can give each patient more time and more attention. The patient load sweet spot for DPC physicians varies but is always much lower than that for the independent physician in a traditional practice.

Ideal patient panel sizes for traditional practices can fall in the 2000-2500 range. Though there is various research as to the validity of such a patient load and the benefits to the patient and the provider who is charged with caring for these patients, physicians in traditional practices do see more patients than DPC physicians.

According to a survey conducted by the AAFP in the spring of 2018, involving both DPC practices and non-DPC practices, “the average DPC panel size is 345 patients. The average target panel size is 596 patients.” Those providers who have started a DPC practice from scratch, 54 percent of those participating in the survey, are challenged with building up their patient panel, while those converting an existing practice, 34 percent of those responding to the survey, may be challenged with losing patients from their traditional practice.

Given the time it takes to build up a practice, particularly one as innovative and unique as a DPC practice, many of those responding to the survey have not yet reached their target panel size. In fact, the survey found that “Only 17 percent of DPC practices have achieved their ideal panel size. Of those that have achieved their ideal panel size, the average time to achieving a full panel was 20 months.”

The patient load sweet spot for any DPC physician is that which supports the practice financially and that still enables the provider to give each patient the personalized attention that characterizes the DPC practice model.