Primary care physician turnover linked to $979M in excess healthcare costs

Primary care physician turnover leads to nearly $1 billion in annual excess healthcare spending, and work-related burnout is a significant contributing factor, according to a new American Medical Association-led study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The new analysis estimated that each time a primary care physician leaves his or her current practice, it results in $86,336 in additional healthcare spending during the following year. For example, patients who lose their primary care physicians may access urgent care centers or emergency departments more. Annually, the analysis found that job turnover of primary care physicians leads to an additional $979 million in excess healthcare costs for public and private payers, with $260 million (27 percent) attributable to primary care physician burnout-related turnover.

"Turnover of primary care physicians is costly to public and private payers, yet there is an opportunity to decrease unnecessary healthcare expenditures by reducing burnout-related turnover," Christine Sinsky, MD, the study's lead author and American Medical Association vice president of professional satisfaction, said in a Feb. 28 news release. "Physician burnout is preventable and payers, healthcare organizations and others have a vested interest in making meaningful changes to reduce physician burnout."

For the analysis, researchers examined data from a cross-sectional survey of more than 5,000 U.S. physicians conducted between Oct. 12, 2017, and March 15, 2018, to estimate burnout prevalence and a person's intention to leave their current practice within two years by specialty. They also examined published data for Medicare patients and calculated estimates for non-Medicare patients to estimate the average number of Medicare and non-Medicare patients per primary care physician. They used the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile, a nearly complete data set of U.S physicians and medical students, to determine the number and distribution of primary care physicians.

To determine excess healthcare costs for patients who lose their primary care physician, the American Medical Association used a pre-COVID-19 pandemic annual turnover estimate of 11,339 primary care physicians, according to the group. Of those 11,339 primary care physicians, researchers estimated burnout-related turnover to affect more than 3,000 of them.  

The study authors noted several limitations, including the assumption that excess healthcare spending for non-Medicare patients was proportional to total healthcare spending by population segment. Researchers also assumed that the average primary care physician has a panel size of 1,000 patients.

To access the full study, click here.

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