Sunday, July 12, 2015

Concierge Medicine – For the Masses or the Elite?

Is concierge medicine (also known as direct primary care, retainer-based, membership) for everyone or is it just for the rich, the 1%? Most people assume it is for the elite and cannot be afforded by the common man, the masses. That is unfortunate because in many cases it can be quite affordable. Here are three examples.

AtlasMD in Kansas City and others like it think of themselves as “blue collar” concierge practices. According to AtlasMD physician Dr Doug Nunamaker “We realized that insurance paying for primary care is akin to using car insurance to try to pay for gasoline. ‘It’s something that’s otherwise fairly affordable until you try to pay for it with insurance: My premiums would be much higher because they wouldn’t know how much gas I would need, they would tell me where to get gas, and I’d have to preauthorize trips out of town.” AtlasMD physicians have 600 patients each. Monthly fees: 20 to 44 years - $50 a month, 45 to 64 - $75 a month, 65 and older - $100 a month, children to 19 years - $10 a month. Generic medicines are available at wholesale prices.

In Erie, a working class city in northwestern Pennsylvania, the Izbicki brothers also began such a “blue collar” membership practice. Just out of training in Family Medicine in 2005, they first worked for another practicing physician and then the local hospital, in each case being frustrated that they could not spend enough time with each patient.  They started their own practice using the typical insurance-based business model and soon had about 4000 patients between them. They were back to seeing too many patients for too short a time each. Dr. Jon Izbicki told me, “We were bitter, frustrated. We were in a failed profession. It was so bad that we really had to take a risk. We knew that what patients want more than anything else is uninterrupted time with their PCP and with that to build a level of confidence. They want relationship-centered care.”

They converted in June, 2013. They chose to call their practice direct primary care given the fiscal conservatism of Erie. Not all of their patients were pleased; less than 20% joined initially. But over time their practice numbers have climbed.

The Izbicki brothers charge $780 per year for unlimited primary care, payable as $65 monthly or annually with a discount. Visits are as long as needed and usually the same or the next day. They have developed contracts with clinical laboratories for highly discounted testing and radiology. They purchase generic drugs at wholesale prices and sell them to their patients at the same price. For many patients, especially those with multiple chronic illnesses who are taking 5-7 prescription medications, this can save as much or more than the annual membership fee. It is this latter factor that especially encourages Medicare enrollees to join.

Dr Jon Izbicki put it this way, “Perhaps the term ‘complex care physician’ would be better than primary care physician as it more closely relates the work of the doctor, especially with these patients with highly complex, serious illnesses.”

Not everyone has a sizable practice from which to convert. For younger physicians, with no base of patients to draw from, it can be a challenge to get started. In Lawrence, Kansas, Dr Ryan Neuhofel began a membership practice called NeuCare right out of his residency training in 2012. He had decided while in medical school and residency that he did not want to be in a typical insurance-based practice. He told me, “I saw that most PCPs did not have fulfilling careers; they spent enormous time in administrative tasks rather than actually working with their patients. I knew I wanted to do primary care but it had to be in a model that let me earn a decent living yet let me give real quality care in a compassionate manner.

“It was a real gamble to go straight into this. I had no patients and no reputation in Lawrence. My practice built slowly at first but is gaining momentum now.” The demographics of his locale are individuals with less than the national median income so his practice is “more like a safety net clinic.” About 70-80% are uninsured and a very large number have complex, chronic illnesses – “a lot more than I anticipated.” His monthly fee is $30 and $40 rising to $50 for those over age 60; he charges $100 for a family of four with $10 more for each extra child. He buys medications from wholesalers. He finds that the savings for some of his patients with multiple prescriptions can be literally hundreds of dollars per month for a family, far outweighing the monthly membership fee. Now a few employers have noticed and decided to offer his services as a benefit to their employees who take out a high deductible policy. “I see this as a real source of growth for my practice and the real long term growth for the whole direct primary care concept. It allows employers to initiate a high deductible policy yet give the employee access to quality primary care at no added cost. This is especially important for the person with lots of chronic illnesses personally or in the family.”

Asked about income once his practice is filled out, “I will be earning about average for a family practice physician in this area and that is just fine with me.”

These three practices demonstrate that direct primary care by whatever name can be affordable to most individuals and families and in many cases actually save money – not to mention a return to relationship-based medicine.

Praise for Dr Schimpff

The craft of science writing requires skills that are arguably the most underestimated and misunderstood in the media world. Dumbing down all too often gets mistaken for clarity. Showmanship frequently masks a poor presentation of scientific issues. Factoids are paraded in lieu of ideas. Answers are marketed at the expense of searching questions. By contrast, Steve Schimpff provides a fine combination of enlightenment and reading satisfaction. As a medical scientist he brings his readers encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. As a teacher and as a medical ambassador to other disciplines he's learned how to explain medical breakthroughs without unnecessary jargon. As an advisor to policymakers he's acquired the knack of cutting directly to the practical effects, showing how advances in medical science affect the big lifestyle and economic questions that concern us all. But Schimpff's greatest strength as a writer is that he's a physician through and through, caring above all for the person. His engaging conversational style, insights and fascinating treasury of cutting-edge information leave both lay readers and medical professionals turning his pages. In his hands the impact of new medical technologies and discoveries becomes an engrossing story about what lies ahead for us in the 21st century: as healthy people, as patients of all ages, as children, as parents, as taxpayers, as both consumers and providers of health services. There can be few greater stories than the adventure of what awaits our minds, bodies, budgets, lifespans and societies as new technologies change our world. Schimpff tells it with passion, vision, sweep, intelligence and an urgency that none of us can ignore.

-- N.J. Slabbert, science writer, co-author of Innovation, The Key to Prosperity: Technology & America's Role in the 21st Century Global Economy (with Aris Melissaratos, director of technology enterprise at the John Hopkins University).