Healthcare is a hot topic today, whether it is a discussion of the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare), a discussion of physician shortages, or an examination of the volume of uninsured and underinsured in America. Many providers are trying to find ways to offer better care to patients while keeping costs low, and the result has been an increase in concierge medicine, or private medicine, practices. A November 2012 report in Businessweek indicated that the number of private physicians in American had grown 30 percent from the previous year, to a total of 4,400.
Better Access to Care
Many people across the U.S., even those who have insurance, find that it is difficult to access primary care physicians. One of the main reasons is a shortage of physicians, which results in the need for every primary care doctor to carry a patient load as high as 4,000 or more patients. With so many patients, a doctor can only spend an average of 10-15 minutes with each person, and people usually have to schedule appointments a month or more in advance. When someone needs urgent care, they have to resort to getting information online and expensive ER visits because they can’t get in to see the doctor.
While private medicine is not new, many doctors have been reducing their patient load and opening concierge practices to respond to patients’ desire to have better access to care. Patients pay a fee that averages about $1,500 to $2,000 per year (in addition to insurance, if they have it) to be part of a practice that has only a few hundred patients. They usually get same-day or next-day appointments, and can contact the doctor personally by email, cell phone, text, and even through social media.
One of the benefits of participating in a private medicine practice is the ability to lower overall costs for healthcare. The monthly, quarterly, or annual fees that doctors charge give patients unlimited access to care without co-pays or other fees, and providers may even be able to offer better prices on tests and other preventive medicine because they buy these items “in bulk” through their practice.
A Personal Touch
Another benefit of concierge medicine is that physicians really get to know their patients. With only a few hundred patients total, the physician can spend more time with each patient to learn important information about their health history, and examine all the symptoms in light of that history. This can significantly reduce the volume of unnecessary tests and procedures that a doctor orders.
While there is some criticism that concierge medicine caters only to the wealthy by charging high annual fees for the privilege of seeing the doctor, many private physicians charge a modest fee and appeal to a wide range of patients who are simply looking for a better healthcare experience.
Manage Rising Overhead
A June 2013 Forbes article reports that primary care physicians make an average of $221,000 a year, an income that remained relatively flat and is only about half of the $396,000 average income for specialty physicians. Insurance reimbursement rates have also remained fairly steady with little increase, which means many doctors must take on even more patients to make up for the rising costs to pay for rising overhead, such as insurance claims processing and malpractice insurance.
For most physicians, the only way to add more patients is to spend less time with each one. Private physicians, on the other hand, are able to reduce costs by not billing insurance for preventive procedures, and offset some of the other overhead costs with the retainer fees that patients pay. As a result, physicians can keep patient loads manageable, spend more time with each patient, and get better outcomes.
As the country debates the best ways to address the problems with our healthcare system, many doctors are already working on finding ways to offer the best possible care to patients. With a significant upside, it is unlikely that the trend toward private medicine will slow down in the coming years.