How many patients is too many? Study debunks industry standard

The number of patients a primary care physician treats — also known as their panel size — determines patient access, physician workload and ultimately, quality of care. While the industry standard primary care panel size is considered to be 2,500 patients, a group of researchers found this number neither accurate nor reasonable.

The researchers traced this commonly accepted standard back to an article published by Catherine Tantau and Mark Murray, MD, in Family Practice Management in 2000 that speculated 2,500 patients was a reasonable upper range for a panel. However, the analysis found this estimate was just that — speculation. It was not based on data or actual panel sizes.

Based on a review of studies on practice settings in the U.S. and abroad, the researchers determined the average actual panel size ranges from 1,200 to 1,900 patients per physician. "Whether these are small enough to allow for optimal productivity, quality of care, and physician and patient satisfaction is unknown," the researchers wrote in their analysis, which was published by the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. In boutique or concierge practices, which offer patients more personal time with physicians, the panel size is roughly 900 to 1,000 patients, according to the report.

But could physicians feasibly take on more patients to reach the "standard" 2,500-patient panel? According to the analysis, no. The researchers suggested it would be nearly impossible to handle a panel size of 2,500 patients — a physician would have to work 21.7 hours per day to deliver comprehensive, quality care to a panel of that size.    

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