Tipping point: AMA study finds physician practice owners no longer the majority

The year 2016 marked a tipping point for physician practices. Physician practice owners are no longer the majority, according to a survey by the American Medical Association.

Less than half of practicing physicians own their own practice, the first time that has happened, according to an AMA Wire article. The 2016 data was collected in a national survey of 3,500 U.S. physicians and reported in a Physician Practice Benchmark Survey (PDF).

It marks the first year in which physician practice ownership is no longer the majority arrangement, with physicians evenly distributed between owners and employees—47.1% of doctors own their own practice, with the same percentage employed and 5.9% independent contractors.

RELATED: 1 in 4 physician practices now hospital-owned

The share of physicians with an ownership stake in a medical practice dropped 6 percentage points from 53.2% in 2012, when the AMA began its survey. At the same time, the share of doctors with employed positions increased about 5%, up from 41.8% in 2012. In most cases doctors are working for other doctors, as 55.8% of doctors continue to work in practices that are wholly owned by physicians. 

The trend was fueled by the preference of younger physicians toward employed positions, with almost two-thirds of doctors under age 40 working as employees in 2016, the AMA said.

“Patients benefit when physicians practice in settings they find professionally and personally rewarding, and the AMA strongly supports a physician’s right to practice in the setting of their choice,” AMA President Andrew W. Gurman, M.D., said in an announcement.

Whether physicians are owners, employees, or independent contractors varied widely across medical specialties. For instance, surgical sub-specialties had the highest share of owners (59.3%), while emergency medicine had the lowest share of owners. Pediatrics was the specialty with the highest share of employed physicians (58.3 %).

RELATED: Bigger isn’t always better for physician practices

Hospital employment, which had been on the increase between 2012 and 2014, leveled off in 2016, the study found. Hospital ownership of physician practices had been on the rise, according to an analysis last year. As of mid-2015, one in four medical practices was hospital-owned.

Although the majority of physicians still work in small practices, the latest AMA research shows a gradual shift toward larger-sized practices of 50 or more physicians. In 2016, 57.8% of physicians worked in practices with 10 or fewer physicians.