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What is the patient load sweet spot for independent physicians?

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Independent physicians tend to be more satisfied with their career choice, experiencing less burnout than their employed counterparts. Autonomy and the ability to make their own decisions about how they run their practice are significant components in their level of satisfaction as well as in the quality of care they provide their patients.

How many patients should the typical independent physician be seeing? The standard number for a primary care panel size has typically been accepted as 2500 patients per physician. However, a study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (JABFM), “A Primary Care Panel Size of 2500 Is neither Accurate nor Reasonable,” states just that – 2500 is not an ideal number.

The authors cite the source of the 2500 figure as an article published in 2000 that “speculated about the upper range of a panel size that could be reasonable under certain circumstances.” No actual data or review of physician panel sizes were included as factors in deriving that number, though. As the study in JABFM points out, “on average, family physicians address approximately 3 problems per visit. It is estimated that a family physician would need 21.7 hours per work day to deliver recommended care to a panel of 2500 patients.”

Given that independent physicians are autonomous, they can have more control over exactly where the sweet spot is for their practice, in terms of their patient load. As Association of Independent Doctors (AID) executive direct Marni Carey points out, “Doctors who work autonomously in small practices … want a say in how their day goes and how the practice is run. If that means they can only see 15 patients a day and do a great job, rather than see 35, they get to make that decision.”

The JABFM study emphasizes that “There is not a simple equation for determining an ideal panel size. Multiple factors must be considered, including factors specific to the patient population, the physician’s personal needs, and the practice’s finances and infrastructure.”

The independent physician must manage patient load with practice efficiency and success. That means calculating how many patients it will take to ensure the practice is financially feasible and that the physician has ample time to devote to each patient. It also means calculating what it will take to continue the job satisfaction and lower rate of burnout that independent physicians tend to enjoy overall.