BACKGROUND The national volume-performance standard recently implemented by Medicare does not account for geographic variation in expenditures for physicians' services. To study this variation, we examined expenditures for physicians' services in all metropolitan areas in the United States. METHODS We used Medicare claims data for 1989 to measure rates of service use for beneficiaries living in the 317 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). The variables investigated were rates of admission to the hospital, payments to physicians for inpatient care per admission and per beneficiary, payments to physicians for outpatient care per beneficiary, and overall payments to physicians per beneficiary. Expenditures were measured in terms of allowed charges as adjusted to reflect prevailing charges in each MSA. Rates of use were adjusted for age and sex, with the exception of the variable for payments to physicians for inpatient care per admission, which was adjusted for case mix. RESULTS Expenditures for the delivery of physicians' services to Medicare beneficiaries varied markedly among MSAs, with those for the areas with the lowest and the highest rates differing at least twofold on each measure. The measures for specific areas varied in parallel: areas with high rates of admission tended to have high levels of payment to physicians for inpatient care per admission, and areas with high payments for inpatient services tended to have high payments for outpatient services. Expenditures were not related to the number of physicians per capita but were lower in MSAs with a high proportion of primary care practitioners. The variation persisted when the 25 largest MSAs were examined; for total payments to physicians per beneficiary, there was a twofold difference between the area with the lowest rate and that with the highest, San Francisco ($872) and Miami ($1,874). The states with the highest overall payments to physicians per beneficiary were Florida, Louisiana, and Michigan. CONCLUSIONS The marked variation among metropolitan areas in payments to physicians underscores the lack of consensus among physicians about which services are required. Moreover, the practice style in a given community appears to be influenced not by the aggregate supply of physicians but rather by the mixture of primary care physicians and specialists.