Study discredits industry standard panel size for primary care physicians

A new study suggests the standard panel size for primary care physicians, about 2,500 patients, is “neither accurate nor reasonable.”

For the study, published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, researchers analysed a number of previous studies on the subject, and found that the average panel size is between 1,200 and 1,900 patients, and that a third of family physicians did not know their panel size. The study team, led by Melanie Raffoul, M.D., and the Robert Graham Center, wrote that larger panels have significant implications for the quality of care a practice can provide.

“A physician who has an appropriately sized panel can deliver more timely and comprehensive care to his or her patients, who are then more likely to be satisfied,” the team wrote. “They also have more time available to coordinate care with subspecialists, improve communication with their patients, provide behavior change counseling, evaluate quality and monitor patient outcomes.”

The team also writes that the 2,500-patient standard is too large for most practices because doctors are limited on time. According to the study, only 50 percent of Americans receive needed acute, chronic and primary care services, and to provide everything a panel of 2,500 patients would need, physicians would have to work more than 21 hours a day. Physicians are already stretched thin, FierceHealthcare previously reported, and burnout inflicts nearly half of doctors. Tweaks to primary care panels could increase access to care by as much as 40 percent.

Smaller panel sizes lead to shorter wait times and longer visits for patients, which improves care, according to the study. The challenge, though, is that encouraging primary care physicians to have smaller panel sizes may make it hard for patients to find a provider. The study team did not conclude if the average of 1,200 to 1,900 was an optimal range, but encouraged practices to determine their ideal panel size using demographic data and patient trends.

- read the analysis