Celebrating Independent Physicians: Top 3 Benefits to Practice Independently

Blog Posts  |  24 May 2022

Written by: Jason Ferenczy-Zumpano, Practice Administrator, Cornerstone Medical Care of Brandon and Sun City Center

During a time when partnering with a hospital to become a health system or joining an already established larger entity may seem like the easier and safer choice, many independent physicians have chosen to remain truly independent.

In a study developed by the Physicians Advocacy Institute conducted between 2019 and 2021, 69% of physicians were hospital or corporate-employed by January 2021. Although more physicians are shifting to hospital or corporate employment, physicians who choose to practice independently are still thriving and reaping the benefits of staying independent.

The Importance of Independent Physician Practices

Independent physician practices are important to patients as they can provide timely, preventative care, manage patients’ acute and chronic conditions, and strive to prevent hospitalizations. Independent practices can give a more personalized approach to healthcare versus the standardized approach from a healthcare system. While consolidation may be “good” for the bottom-line, in many cases it may not make sense for patients or the physicians inside the practice.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Independent Physician Practices

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the healthcare industry hard and forced organizations to adjust their operations to stay open or be forced to close. According to a survey by The Physicians Foundation, 43% of independent practices reduced their staff, and 8% had permanently closed due to the pandemic. Almost 75% of the providers surveyed saw a decrease in their practice’s income. The inclusion of telehealth helped independent practices during the second half of 2020, with 80% of practices offering telehealth moving forward. According to a survey by the Medical Group Management Association in September 2021, 73% of medical practices reported that staffing was the biggest pandemic challenge heading into 2022.

With factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing number of mergers and acquisitions by hospitals, health systems, and private equity firms, it’s a challenge to remain operating as an independent practice. That said, those who have stayed the course reap valuable advantages. Although there are many possible benefits that can arise from joining a larger organization, providers may experience more fulfilling and rewarding benefits by remaining independent.

1. Greater autonomy

With the responsibility of managing an independent practice comes great power over the control of the practice operations. Without the management from a larger organization, independent physicians can experience the flexibility that comes with independence – the flexibility in the hours of operation, numbers of hours worked, and scheduling patients. By deciding not to merge with larger hospitals or health systems, physicians can dictate how their practice will operate and may avoid conforming to policies and procedures being enforced at a higher level. The utilization of ancillary services tends to be more patient centric than large health systems that own and control multiple hospitals, specialists, ambulatory surgery centers, pharmacies, and often seek to direct or control referral patterns.

Practicing freely from the management of a hospital or health system’s corporate structure means a lot to independent physicians who value practicing medicine. According to Melissa Huff, Chief Technology Officer at Clinics of North Texas, “Remaining independent allows physicians to treat patients as trained without a lot of bureaucratic red tape or interference from corporate administrators who do not understand the practice of medicine.” By remaining independent, independent physician practice can keep a truly aligned physician culture without heavy influence from a larger organization.

2. Greater patient engagement and satisfaction

Physicians who operate independently experience more freedom to engage with patients when and how they choose. According to Blake Frieden, MD, an independent Obstetrician-gynecologist in Dallas, Texas,” Being a solo practice physician allows me to focus every aspect of my practice on patient care. There are no office hurdles to interfere with my relationship with patients. I can spend as much time as I need with them. I have fewer employees so everyone in my organization knows the patients well.” Without a tether to a larger organization, independent physicians are less likely to experience hurdles that can interfere with their relationship with their patients. Operating on a smaller scale with fewer employees than a hospital or health system means that patients can get to know their providers well and can have the time they need with their physician.

According to an article from Mobius MD, spending more time with patients can also lead to more positive patient experiences and an increase in patient satisfaction, not to mention physician satisfaction. Patient satisfaction can have an important impact on profitability. Studies have shown that there is a relationship between patient satisfaction and profitability, with patients’ quality perceptions having a 17% to 27% variation in a practice’s financial metrics.

3. Higher physician satisfaction

Physician burnout is an ongoing epidemic that has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a poll of 930 medical practices conducted by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), 33% of respondents claimed that they had physicians retire early or leave due to burnout in 2021. This same study accounted the top causes for the physician departures or retirements were onerous administrative and paperwork burdens, EHR fatigue, challenges with insurance companies and loss of work-life balance. A respondent in the polling stated that the “real problem is bureaucratic burdens that interfere with patient care” and that the “business of medicine has become impersonal and placed too much pressure on physicians.”

Although physician burnout and dissatisfaction is a major concern overall, a survey studying 300 full-time physicians found that physicians who are employed by hospitals and corporations are more dissatisfied than physicians working in independent practices. The survey found that nearly 25 % more corporate or hospital-owned physicians talk about work in a more negative way compared to independent physicians. Working independently brings the benefits of practicing medicine back in the hands of the physician and may attribute to better levels of satisfaction.

By staying independent, physician practices can experience benefits that help improve patient and provider satisfaction and contribute to a more rewarding work environment. With the advantage of greater autonomy, independent physicians can experience more control and freedom to operate their practice how they see fit. Although the advantages of staying independent are appealing to physicians who want to stay in control, some challenges may arise that could be overwhelming to physicians and could possibly make them consider consolidation.

Learn what these challenges are, and how to overcome them, in the next blog in our series: Celebrating Independent Physicians. Follow us on social media to stay updated on our next blog!