Primary Care Physicians

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Ratio of population to primary care physicians. The 2024 Annual Data Release used data from 2021 for this measure.

Access to health care requires not only financial coverage, but also access to providers. While high rates of specialist physicians have been shown to be associated with higher (and perhaps unnecessary) utilization, sufficient availability of primary care physicians is essential for preventive and primary care and, when needed, referrals to appropriate specialty care.1,2

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Data and methods

Data Source

Area Health Resource File/American Medical Association

The Area Health Resource File is a collection of data from more than 50 sources, including: the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, U.S. Census Bureau, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and National Center for Health Statistics.

The American Medical Association maintains the Physician Masterfile, which contains information on nearly all the Doctors of Medicine and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine in the nation. 

Information from AHRF should be appropriately attributed through the use of the following citation: Area Health Resources Files (AHRF) 2022-2023. US Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Bureau of Health Workforce, Rockville, MD.

Website to download data
For more detailed methodological information

Key Measure Methods

Primary Care Physicians is a ratio

Primary Care Physicians is the ratio of the population to primary care physicians. The ratio represents the number of individuals served by one physician in a county, if the physicians were equally distributed across the population. For example, if a county has a population of 50,000 and has 20 primary care physicians, the county ratio would be: 2,500:1. The value on the right side of the ratio is always 1 or 0; 1 indicates that there is at least one primary care physician in the county, and zero indicates there are no registered primary care physicians in the county.

The method for calculating Primary Care Physicians has changed

Prior to the 2013 Annual Data Release, Primary Care Physicians were defined only as M.D.s. In 2013, we added D.O.s to the definition of Primary Care Physicians and removed obstetrics/gynecology as a primary care physician type.

Some data are suppressed

A missing value is reported for counties with population greater than 2,000 and 0 primary care physicians.

Caution should be used when comparing these estimates across years

Caution should be used when comparing across years. The definition of primary care physicians has changed, as detailed in “The method for calculating Primary Care Physicians has changed.” For information on additional cautions please visit the Area Health Resources File Technical documentation.

Measure limitations

Although the relationship between primary care physicians and improved health outcomes is supported in literature, this measure has a number of limitations. First, Primary Care Physicians are classified by county, but physicians living on the edge of counties or who practice in multiple locations may see patient populations that reside in surrounding counties. Second, physicians are not the only type of primary care provider available for most patients. This measure does not include nurse practitioners, physician assistants, or other practitioners available for primary care services. Finally, the organization and coordination of care may be just as important to health outcomes as the number of primary care physicians in an area.3

Left side of ratio

The left side of the ratio represents the county population.

Right side of ratio

The right side of the ratio represents the primary care physicians corresponding to county population. Primary care physicians include practicing non-federal physicians (M.D.s and D.O.s) under age 75 specializing in general practice medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics.

Can This Measure Be Used to Track Progress

This measure could be used to track progress with some caveats. Trends should only be calculated starting with the data from the 2013 Annual Data Release due to changes in methodology. 

Finding More Data

Disaggregation means breaking data down into smaller, meaningful subgroups. Disaggregated data are often broken down by characteristics of people or where they live. Disaggregated data can reveal inequalities that are otherwise hidden. These data can be disaggregated by:

  • Age
  • Gender

It is difficult to stratify this measure by population demographics. However, on the Health Workforce Mapper you can map the ratio of primary care physicians at the county and state level and view data by age and gender of physicians.    


1 Steinbrook R. Easing the shortage in adult primary care -- Is it all about money? New England Journal of Medicine. 2009;360:2696-2699.

2 Baicker K, Chandra A. Medicare spending, the physician workforce, and beneficiaries' quality of care. Health Affairs. 2004;23(Suppl 1):W184-W197.

3 Goodman DC, Grumbach K. Does having more physicians lead to better health system performance? Journal of the American Medical Association. 2008;299(3):335-337.

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