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What We’ve Learned from Horizontal and Vertical Integration of Physicians

flying cadeuciiAs health care reform rolls out, there is a growing focus on restructuring the health service delivery system in the hope of improving health care quality and “bending the cost curve.”

A key part of this focus has been on physician organization and, in particular, moving toward large, multispecialty physician groups or hospital-physician systems that can provide integrated, coordinated patient care (e.g., through “Accountable Care Organizations”).

In a recent chapter in Advances in Health Care Management’s Annual Review of Health Care Management, however, we and our co-author Jeff Goldsmith find that there is little evidence for the superiority of these integrated models in terms of patient care quality or cost-savings, and that the trends toward physician consolidation has been much less dramatic than is often thought.

Using data from a variety of sources, we find there are two separate phenomena at work in physician organization. At one end of the spectrum (bottom tail of the size distribution of physician groups), the majority of physicians continue to practice in small groups, although there has been some movement from really small practices (one to three or four physicians) to slightly larger groups (five to nine physicians).

Still, nearly two-thirds of office-based physicians continue to practice in solo settings, two-person partnerships, and small (usually single specialty) groups with five or fewer physicians.

At the other end of the spectrum (upper tail of the distribution), however, is a smaller number of very large and rapidly growing multispecialty physician groups, which are often owned by hospitals, health plans, private equity firms, or other non-physician sponsors.

These two stories of what is happening in the distribution of physician group size are described as “a tale of two tails.”

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