We hear a lot about how US medicine is broken, from how much we spend annually ($4 trillion) for unimpressive outcomes, to the growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes, to problematic financial models, to the growing malaise amongst doctors.
Across US health care, a lot of smart people are crafting solutions to these problems, but in my view the reality is that many of them are generating efficiencies on top of a broken product.
The real problem is that conventional primary care as it’s practiced today no longer serves the needs of most people, be they wealthy or under-served, be they patient or provider.
I am starting Parsley Health, a new kind of medical practice that directly addresses these problems, first by providing something called Functional Medicine rather than traditional primary care, and second by providing functional medicine in a tech driven, modern and affordable way.
What is Functional Medicine?
I became a functional medicine doctor because early on I recognized two major limitations of the conventional medicine.
Many doctors are frustrated by pressures to practice a faster and more impersonal brand of medicine, but some are actually doing something about it. I recently spoke with one such doctor, Tom O’Connor, MD, who practices general internal medicine in central Connecticut. He and his partner, Paul Guardino, MD, believe they were the first US physicians to begin building a fully concierge medical practice the day they completed training. In the concierge model, their practice collects an annual fee of several thousand dollars from each patient, enabling better access, more personalized care, and even house calls.
But the real story about physicians such as O’Connor is not that they are opting for a different model of financing their practices. Instead it is the unmistakable sense of excitement with which they talk about the way they care for patients – an attitude that has become noticeably rarer in recent years. Says O’Connor, “I have been practicing medicine for nearly ten years this way, and I am happier than ever.” His enthusiasm stems largely from the fact that, unlike most physicians, he is not employed by a hospital or a large practice group. Instead, he works for himself. He is his own boss.
Of course, the idea of doctors running their own practice is not a new one. For much of the 20th century, most physicians were self-employed, and many operated in solo practice. Today’s trend away from physician self-employment is driven by a number of factors, including increasingly complex and costly regulation of medical practice by government and insurance companies, the failure of medical schools and residencies to prepare physicians to manage their practices, and big financial incentives for hospitals and health systems to buy medical practices in order to capture patient referrals.
Enter a new breed of physician that includes O’Connor. He did not want someone else telling him who he could care for, what tests and medications he could order, or how long he could spend with each patient. In his practice, he and his partner – the doctors who actually see the patients every day – make such decisions themselves. He sees all his own patients, whether in the office, the nursing home, the hospital, or at home – wherever care needs to be provided. They do not go to walk-in clinics and they are not cared for by teams of hospitalists. O’Connor is their doctor in every context.
What should we call it, when doctors decide to not accept with insurance and instead require patients to pay them directly for a healthcare service?
We should call it what it is: direct-pay. As in, patients pay their provider directly.
But most of the world, it seems, calls it concierge.
This is a bit of a problem. Clarity of thought, after all, often stems from clarity in language and word choices.
Now that a growing number of providers are choosing to not accept insurance, or are supplementing insurance payments with annual fees (this too, has been called concierge), we need to be able to have clear, serious, and meaningful conversations about what this means and where healthcare, especially primary care, might be going.
(Disclosure: I’m one of those physicians who has decided to not accept insurance, at least for the time being. I have my reasons.)
The term “concierge medicine” interferes with this conversation. It’s overly broad, freighted with overtones, and allows us to conflate all kinds of aspects of healthcare that would be best considered separately. These include:
How expensive is the care? Concierge has been used to refer to practices that charge primary care subscription fees ranging from $30/month to $25,000/year.
How does the pay structure correspond to service?Although a “monthly subscription = all the care you want” model is common, we also find fee-for-visit and fee-for-time. And then some practices charge patients both an annual or monthly retainer, plus fee-for-service.
What kind of access to the team and to the personal physician is provided?Some practices promise to give patients the doctor’s cell phone number and invite them to call at any hour. Larger practices seem usually offer 24/7 access to the team. Probably few practices are like my consultative practice, which offers good response time during business hours but no after-hours or weekend coverage.
How individualized is the care? How participatory is it? This is a tricky one, but I think it’s important to at least consider, given everyone’s recent interest in things like personalized care, patient-centered care, person-centered care, and participatory medicine. Just about all the practices labeled “concierge” do offer a more satisfactory patient experience. Whether this equates to individualized care in a way that is meaningful (i.e. correlates to better health outcomes or a better match of care to the patient’s situation/values/preferences) is another story.
In general, it seems to me that the term “concierge medicine” right now is being applied for a few different purposes.
The deal is that they’ve gone with mid-range concierge fee ($35 a month—around the cost of a low cost cell phone plan or high-end Netflix?) for patients to get access/membership and then have fixed charges thereafter. That amount is about three times what I pay for very basic low-end concierge services (basically email) at Tom Lee’s Metropolitan Medical Group in San Francisco, but way less than the typical $150–200 a month fee for high-end concierge practices.
What remains to me the tricky factor in their vision is how they’ll make this work with the bureaucracy & accounting behind high deductible plans (without taking on a ton of staff). But however that piece works out, someone needs to shake up primary care. Jay and his 2 colleagues are young entrepreneurial docs giving it a shake.
Health 2.0 had a film crew there with David Kibbe acting as roving reporter at the launch party. Much more on both these topics to come, but remember that Hello Health is also working with MyCa on a very interesting new interface to the EMR and much more.
Yes, you’ll see much more about the Health 2.0 Across America video starring David Kibbe and the MyCa interface at the Health 2.0 Conference.
Call it boutique medicine. Retainer medicine. Platinum care. Evoking the pastoral image of a sturdy black doctor’s bag and spectacles, concierge medicine is a small but growing trend among over-worked and over-booked physicians. The practice essentially offers a limited number of patients the opportunity to pay a fixed annual fee in exchange for premium services and attention. Fees can range anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000. Concierge medicine has been dubiously received while transition necessitates limiting a physician’s patient base significantly. Imagine receiving a letter from your doctor of 30 years demanding an annual fee on top of the cost of your normal visits. Hurry your check, and you may be one of the lucky ten percent the practice will keep. Thousands of patients have been outraged to receive just this kind of letter from their family doctor.
I believe concierge medicine can indeed offer significant advantages if mixed with a dose of good, old-fashioned business practice. There exists a happy medium that allows physicians to spend increased time with patients without alienating long-term clients. In our practice, we demand no annual fee. We ask that Medicare patients pay out of pocket for their wellness visit; such payment is only covered when the patient turns 65. The patient can in turn be reimbursed on the insurance provider’s schedule.
Does primary care have a future? And is that future a version of concierge medicine? It’s very early days, but yesterday I had a great conversation with Ed Goldman, CEO of MDVIP, a franchise concierge medicine company. He has some very interesting things to say about how concierge care may not just be for the worried wealthy.
The conversation is in this podcast
There’ll be a transcript available in a couple of days.
Listen to them on Itunes or Spotify
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