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FAIRNESS DEBATE: Trend … Exclusive medical care, around the clock and anywhere in the world, including on a yacht or private plane.

Putting Your Doctor, or a Whole Team of Them, on Retainer

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April 29, 2011 – FIVE years ago, Steven L. Glazer, an internal medicine doctor in Norwalk, Conn., told his thousand patients that he would no longer be able to care for them because he was going to focus on only a dozen, wealthy patients who could pay his annual fee.

With that he entered the world of concierge medicine, a growing subset of medicine where patients pay doctors anywhere from $1,500 to $25,000 a year to receive personalized attention and care. (Dr. Glazer said he was paid toward the top of this range.) In most cases, patients presume that in an emergency their concierge doctor will push them to the front of the line to see a top specialist.

Even as more people are struggling to pay medical bills and being rushed through office visits with their doctors, an elite group with money has another option: exclusive medical care, around the clock and anywhere in the world, including on a yacht or private plane.

One of Dr. Glazer’s clients, for instance, has had his yacht outfitted with a system from Guardian 24/7, a company in Leesburg, Va., founded by former White House doctors that advertises itself as offering “medical protection previously available only to the president of the United States.” The company’s “ready room” will allow a doctor trained in the system to perform basic medical care remotely if something should go wrong while the patient is on the high seas.

“There is very little that we can’t do with the triage room on their yacht,” he said.

The cost of Guardian 24/7’s services ranges from $6,000 to $12,000 a month, plus an additional $700,000 for one of the company’s top-of-the-line “ready rooms” installed in a client’s home, yacht or airplane, said Jonathan Frye, chief executive.

While it is difficult to determine how many people are served by this more personalized care, the number of doctors who have moved to this new model has risen fivefold in the last five years. And that raises questions about medical care in America. For those who can afford it, what do they get for their money? Is it worth it? And for the rest of us, who cannot afford this level of care, is it fair and ethical for doctors to be doing this? Or is concierge care contributing to the growing gulf between the wealthy and everyone else?

COSTS AND BENEFITS Concierge medical care is nothing new. In places like Florida, with a high concentration of Medicare patients, some upper-middle-class retirees pay extra fees so they can see a doctor when they need to.

MDVIP, which has 450 concierge doctors in 34 states, charges patients $1,500 to $1,800 a year. Their doctors are each limited to 600 patients, whereas, the company says, most primary care physicians serve at least 2,000 patients. It says appointments with doctors “start on time and last as long as necessary” and can usually be made the same day or the next one. The company’s fee is for the extended care and comprehensive annual physical and wellness plan, but its doctors still bill the patient’s insurance company for procedures.

The international, around-the-clock programs take concierge medicine to a different level. Their primary goal is to offer an extra level of oversight to make sure that participants are getting the proper level of care whenever they need it.

Dr. Miles J. Varn, chief medical officer at PinnacleCare Private Health Advisory, which charges annual fees of $1,500 to $25,000, said the starting point for all patients was a complete review of all health records with an emphasis on finding gaps in care.

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