Some local doctors embrace concierge care model
24/7 access, shorter waits come with an increased price tag
By Lydia Seabol Avant, Staff Writer
MARCH 1, 2014 – A growing model of health care has now come to Tuscaloosa.
An estimated 5,500 concierge doctors in the United States are concierge doctors — physicians who charge patients an annual fee, usually ranging from $600 to $1,800 a year or more, in exchange for shorter wait times and more access for care.
In Tuscaloosa, Dr. David Fernandez, who has spent the last 15 years in urgent care, began offering a concierge practice in January. Dr. Steve Lovelady, who has practiced primary care medicine in Tuscaloosa since 1987, will convert to a VIP concierge model on May 20.
“With today’s health care, there are fewer and fewer physicians who are seeing more and more patients,” Fernandez said.
That means physicians in traditional practices may not have a time slot available. In turn, patients wait longer to be seen or must go to an urgent care center or emergency room for care.
“Patients are now deciding their time is important and valuable,” Fernandez said.
While a concierge practice means shorter wait times and more access for patients, it also means a lighter patient load for physicians, which means concierge doctors have time to get to know their patients and to focus on preventive medicine, Lovelady said.
A traditional primary care doctor in the U.S. will see between 2,500 to 3,000 patients a year, while most concierge practices keep the number of patients to 600 or fewer.
“I think that every doctor really would like to practice more wellness and preventative medicine,” Lovelady said. “Unfortunately our (traditional) model has been to react and treat sick people, rather than focusing on our ability to keep people well.”
The annual fee at most concierge medicine practices means an in-depth physical that could take as long as two hours and includes an EKG, blood tests, spirometry testing, body-fat analysis and nutritional analysis. Doctors discuss family history, risks and review a physical workup. Patients who are members of a concierge medicine practice are also usually given cellphone numbers for their doctors.
“They will have a direct line to me and can reach me 24/7, rather than going through the traditional phone-tree system,” Lovelady said.
The same is true for Fernandez. Being a concierge patient could mean that if you travel during the week, you can make an appointment with a doctor on the weekend, or even get a house call if it’s needed, Fernandez said.
“Again, you are paying for access and paying for convenience,” Fernandez said.
A growing trend
Concierge medicine began in 1996 when a former team doctor for the Seattle SuperSonics professional basketball team left his practice and started a concierge service, MD2.
According to Concierge Medicine Today, a publication for the concierge medicine industry, the number of concierge doctors in the U.S. has grown from 3,500 in 2011 to about 5,500 in 2013. The American Academy of Private Physicians estimates that concierge doctors serve almost a million patients in the U.S.
But there is no record of the number of concierge doctors in Alabama, according to the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners.
MDVIP, a concierge medicine program that includes more than 700 concierge physicians nationwide, had its first concierge doctor in Alabama in 2004, and now has six MDVIP concierge doctors in Birmingham and eight physicians in Huntsville. Lovelady will be the first MDVIP physician in the Tuscaloosa area once his practice converts to concierge medicine in May.
“We started MDVIP 12 years ago, literally with doctors and patients getting together and saying there had to be a better way,” said Dan Hecht, CEO of MDVIP. “Doctors were running faster and faster on a treadmill and couldn’t keep up with patients, and patients were tired of waiting 45 minutes to see a doctor.”
Tuscaloosa resident Justin Little has been a patient of Lovelady’s for the last decade and has decided to join the concierge medicine service.