What’s concierge medicine? Is it worth it?
My primary care doctor recently left her practice and invited me to join her at her new gig — a concierge medicine group. There, for a membership fee, I’d have better and more personal access to her services, including same-day appointments and long conversations.
Concierge medicine — a model in which patients pay a membership fee for a more direct relationship with a primary care doctor — used to feel like a perk for the super-wealthy. But as fees have come down and people have gotten more frustrated with the state of traditional primary care, concierge services may not seem like such a pie-in-the-sky option.
There’s less waiting, more access, longer visits and greater coordination of care. However, the fees can be high, and if you don’t have complex medical needs, it may not feel worth the expense.
Annual up-front fee
Concierge medicine is an arrangement in which a patient pays a membership fee to gain access to a doctor’s practice.
Your fee may cover a wide range of services, with insurance covering any needs you have outside the practice, or your fee may cover basic preventive care, and the practice might accept insurance for the rest.
But your overall experience is more personal. Concierge medicine typically offers same-day appointments and 24/7 access to your doctor (who, by the way, isn’t rushed during visits).
Patients like it because they have more time with their provider, said Terry Bauer, CEO of Specialdocs, a company that helps doctors transition to concierge medicine.
People with a medical situation after hours can call, text or email their doctor directly. “They have that doctor, in essence, on speed dial,” Bauer said. “It makes people a lot more comfortable and a lot less anxious.”
What does it cost?
Membership fees for concierge medicine vary widely. For one large concierge network with doctors in 44 states, the fee is typically between $1,800 and $2, 200 per year (or between $150 and $183 per month).
Other practices can run much more. “I know a couple that charge $4,000 a month,” Bauer said.
Doctors who charge those prices may be board certified in two specialties — cardiology and internal medicine, for instance — or they may be in an extremely wealthy area of the country, he said.
The good news is that if you have a flexible spending or health savings account, you can use those pre-tax funds to pay your annual membership fees as long as they go toward wellness benefits.
There’s plenty to like about concierge medicine.
“With a smaller patient roster, your doctor can take the time to know you and your health history intimately, which can lead to more personalized and effective care,” said Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, a practicing internal medicine physician and host of the TED Health podcast.
“Concierge doctors can focus more on preventative care, which could potentially catch health issues early and save costs in the long run.”
The biggest stumbling block for most people is the price tag. “For people on a tight budget or those without substantial health care needs, this could be a significant cost without enough perceived benefit,” Ungerleider said.
On top of the cost, there are practical concerns: Concierge doctors are still a small percentage of the medical field, so your options for care may be limited.
And while a concierge doctor can manage your regular or chronic concerns, you’ll still pay for visits to the hospital or emergency room, major surgeries and visits to other specialists.
“It does not negate the need for health insurance,” said John Hansbrough, an employee benefits consultant with the LBL Group, an insurance and financial services company. “You need the insurance because bad stuff can still happen.”
Advocates argue that concierge preventive care can save you money overall. Consider the scenario where a text exchange with your doctor saves you a 2 a.m. trip to the emergency room, for instance.
Yet, concierge medicine isn’t a slam-dunk for everyone. If you can’t afford the membership fee or are an infrequent healthcare user, this model probably isn’t a good fit.
But it can be a game changer for patients with chronic illnesses who would benefit from the higher level of care. And for people who are frustrated by the conventional medical system, concierge care offers an alternative.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
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