INDUSTRY: Boutique medicine emerges as an on & off-line niche. Will it be turbocharged by HSAs?

I’m preparing a speech I’m giving next week and I’ve gone back to some of my old charts which essentially said that over time Americans would have less time and more money to deal with our health care (and lives as a whole).  The cause of the less time and most of the "more money" is the disappearance of the (voluntary) stay-at-home spouse.  The additional cause of the more money is the growth in incomes and wealth of higher paid Americans versus the average.

As part of the medical profession’s attempt to deal with the new reality of a higher-end consumer, and as part of the rejection of managed care, some of those physicians who can have made the move towards "boutique medicine". Essentially what that means is they charge an upfront fee for some set of enhanced services to patients that is not billable to an insurer, and thus is paid in cash by patients.  The leading example of this is Howard Maron, M.D., MD2’s founder and ex-team doctor for the Seattle Supersonics who apparently has enabled himself and three colleagues to bill over $1 million each annually by taking care of 100 people at $10,000 each (or $20,000 depending on who you believe)–the patients still carry insurance for labs, hospitalization and other expensive stuff.

    MD2 physicians deliver care not available elsewhere, such as appointments often lasting an hour, extensive preventive care, thorough annual physicals, and even advocacy for patients with payers and other providers. MD2 doctors practice a "proactive, preventive" approach to health, he adds. They also provide the full range of primary care.

    MD2 doctors don’t bill insurers or participate in insurers’ networks, Moses notes. "We encourage the patients to have insurance for everything else" besides primary care, he continues, including hospitalization, specialists and drugs. "This is not a replacement for insurance in any way."

 It sounds great for the docs as the overhead is lower and the revenue is higher than typical primary care.  It doesn’t sound so great for the patients, unless the price of doctor visits is much higher in Seattle than I’ve understood.  But if they can get people to sign up for it, good luck to them–it’s the American way.

More realistically The McKinsey Quarterly had an article a while back about Virginia Mason (also in Seattle) which charges $3,000 a year and has over 850 people signed up.

    For $3,000 a year, it offers individual subscribers 24-hour access to internists by mobile telephone or e-mail, as well as house and office calls by physicians. In addition, the Dare Center’s doctors who see 3 to 8 patients a day, compared with 20 to 25 for their colleagues at health maintenance organizations (HMOs) spend more time with each subscriber. Revenue from subscriptions easily fills the gap between the higher fees charged for the longer, off-hour, off-site consultations and the insurers’ reimbursement payments, which are based on the standard charge for an office visit to an internist during normal hours.

    About 850 people, mostly over 60 years of age, have subscribed, far exceeding expectations, and the Dare Center plans to expand. On average, members use it 7 or 8 times a year, while people in their US age cohort make an average of 6.8 visits to clinics a year.

This may work for some clinics and systems, and they may manage to sail around Medicare laws that ban balanced billing.  But it strikes me that that’s a little too much money to become mainstream.  Some other clinics are offering similar services at a lower price–you can get extended phone and email consults, plus the promise of an appointment the next day from GreenField Health Systems for a mere $350 a year, so long as you move to Portland, Oregon! That seems to me to be closer to what most people might find reasonable to pay, if they are regular visitors to their doctor.  For those who want these type of "concierge services" a company like Health Dialog, which uses the Wennberg technique of Shared Decision-Making. Shared Decision Making "presents patients with evidence-based, unbiased views of their healthcare options, and encourages patients to work with their doctors to choose the healthcare options that are right for them". It also tends to make patients use less health care, and so health plans and employers are happy to pay for it, which is why Health Dialog is growing quite fast and why the other DSM companies like LifeMasters and American Healthways are growing quite fast.

There’s a very limited market of people who can or will pay $10,000 or even $3,000 a year for primary care services.  But $1,000 or $1,500 which covers, say, 10 doctor visits, emails, phone calls, and all the hand-holding you can eat, may be attractive to consumers–especially if doctors stop making phone calls for free (mine does, thanks Dr…no I won’t say his name!). The question I don’t know the answer to is whether people will be able to use their yet to be set-up HSA or Consumer-directed health plan accounts to pay for these boutique care services.  But if the fees counts against the HSA and the deductible, then anything else (more or less) hits against the catastrophic insurance.  So the boutique service is more or less free (assuming that the patient would be making those visits any way). And if a primary care doctor can get 3-400 patients to pay it, well that’s a nice bonus.

So watch this one shake out as doctors try to set up to get into the boutique game at a bargain price and make it work for CDHPs and HSAs. Of course the insurers will try to wriggle out from having these payments count as co-pays or against deductibles.

The bigger question is that, as employers and plans push "consumer choice" onto patients (what Ian Morrison calls "You’re on your own pal!"), how big a phenomenon will boutique medicine be? Or will consumers/patients who are already getting aggravated with having to contribute more for their insurance at work, get really mad when they are asked to pay more for the services that they thought they were already getting from their physicians?

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4 replies »

  1. Hi Phil,
    For someone who only see’s their PCP 2x per year, like many people, it may not be worth it. However, if your concierge doctor is good, checkout what he offers. Ideally, he/she should be providing more involved care, good preventative care, and he/she should get you more involved in your own healthcare. PS: If you smoke, than you will find that he should be a good investment.

  2. How does someone go about finding a concierge doctor? My boss is interested and I’m having a hard time finding one. He lives in Austin, TX, which would be the best place for his doctor. However, he does fly to NYC often.
    Any pointers on how to go about finding one?

  3. My internist of over 20 years is converting his practice to Boutique. For a $1500 fee I can join or find another internist. Doesn’t seem very fair. I see him maybe twice a year – for an annual physical and the usual weather-related malady. He’s making the switch at the end of March, so the appointment I have with him for an annual physical in August is not going to take place – unless, of course, I join his new practice. I can afford the fee, but doesn’t make economic sense because it’s about what I’m already paying for my son and I through my employer-subsidized Medical coverage. Since he is my network primary care physician, my cost is 1/100th of the proposed fee in copay for the annual physical. Sure, it’s a nightmare to try and get an appointment (3-4 months for an annual physical) but it makes sense for him though – same or greater income, less patients to deal with, perhaps greater control of his time. The American Way.

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