Jun 29, 2021 - Health

Doctor acquisitions spiked amid the pandemic

Percentage change in physician practices owned by hospitals and corporate entities
Data: Physicians Advocacy Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

Nearly 70% of America's physicians were employed by hospitals or corporations by the end of 2020, and nearly half of physician practices were owned by them, according to a new analysis released by the Physicians Advocacy Institute.

Why it matters: The health care industry is becoming increasingly consolidated, which studies suggest will lead to even higher prices.

Flashback: "The coronavirus is shriveling the businesses of doctors' practices, which serve as the home base for most patients," Axios' Bob Herman reported last spring.

  • "Small and independent groups that are facing the most severe cash crunches eventually may be forced into two less-than-ideal options: sell the practice, which would further consolidate the industry and expose patients to higher costs, or close their doors for good."

Between the lines: It looks like Bob's reporting was spot-on.

  • The analysis, which was done by Avalere Health, found that there was a particularly sharp uptick in the number of physician practices owned by non-hospital corporations — like insurers or private equity firms — between January 2019 and January 2021.
Percentage change in U.S. physicians employed by hospitals or corporate entities
Data: Physicians Advocacy Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: More than 48,000 physicians left independent practice to become employed by hospitals or other companies — a 13% increase in the number of employed physicians, per the report.

  • The number of practices owned by hospitals or corporations increased by 21% over the two-year time period, the analysis found.

Between the lines: Private equity has been flocking to health care for years, and some private equity-owned providers made a name for themselves by being a frequent source of surprise medical bills.

  • And hospital consolidation amid the pandemic — particularly by systems that received federal coronavirus aid — has recently drawn criticism.
  • “It was not the intent to be a capital infusion to the largest and most financially stable providers to allow them to simply grow their slice of market share,” Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) told the NYT.

The bottom line: The pandemic's fiscal impact on doctors may have only reinforced or accelerated a trend that was already underway. But it certainly didn't stop hospitals from pursuing a lucrative business line, nor did it make the industry less attractive to investors.

Go deeper: Private equity's slow creep into doctors' offices

Go deeper