Concierge Medicine: Is Extra Time With a Doctor Worth the Extra Cost?
Modern medicine is so frustrating. First you wait weeks for an appointment — or months. Then you sit and cool your heels in the waiting room. Then some staffer asks you a bunch of questions. Finally you get an impersonal 10-minute consultation with your actual doctor before they have to move on to their next patient. That’s just how it works nowadays.
What if you were able to reach your primary care physician whenever you want, or even text them with a question? What if you could get same-day or next-day appointments? What if your doctor was intimately familiar with your medical history instead of just glancing at your chart before they meet with you?
That’s the appeal of “concierge medicine,” which is sometimes called “boutique medicine” or “retainer medicine” or “direct primary care.” For a monthly or annual membership fee, you can have a more convenient and personalized health care experience than most patients get.
Its popularity is growing like gangbusters, too. In 2015, there were about 275 concierge medical practices in the U.S. In 2018, there were nearly 900. Today there are more than 2,000, according to DPCFrontier.com, a website for doctors who are launching such practices.
Is concierge medicine worth it? That depends on a few factors — the main one being, can you afford it?
What Does Concierge Care Cost?
How much does it cost? It varies a lot, depending on where you live and what kind of service you’re getting.
We asked the largest network of concierge medical doctors, MDVIP, which includes 1,100 physicians across the U.S.
“Patient fees for concierge practices can vary widely, but MDVIP has set a benchmark with our membership fees averaging between $1,800 and $2,200 per year,” said the group’s associate medical director, Dr. Alan Reisinger III. That breaks down to $150-$183 per month.
Others in the industry are seeing a wider range of prices.
“There is actually quite a range in concierge membership rates, from $1,200 to as high as $10,000 per year,” says Partner MD, a network of eight concierge medical practices in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia and South Carolina. “The average cost of concierge medicine is usually somewhere between $1,500-$3,000 per year.”
That average cost breaks down to $125-$250 per month. Some medical practices let you pay monthly or quarterly instead of an annual fee.
Then there’s the higher end, for truly high-income patients. Some people derisively call this “wealth care.”
Will You Still Need Health Insurance?
It’s important to note that concierge care isn’t a substitute for health insurance. Many concierge medical practices bill your insurance on top of your membership fee.
“You should know that you’ll still need to carry regular insurance,” says AARP. “You’ll need insurance if you have to go to the emergency room or if you have a condition like heart disease that requires you to see a specialist.”
Since your concierge membership typically covers routine health care, you might switch to a low-premium, high-deductible insurance policy to save yourself money.
What’s the Difference?
Here’s what sets concierge medicine apart: Because concierge care doctors have significantly fewer patients, they can devote more time to those patients.
“More patients are choosing it because they’re frustrated with long waits to see the doctor, rushed appointments and impersonal care that’s become par for the course in the current system,” said Reisinger, who went into concierge care because he grew weary of what felt like “conveyor-belt medicine.”
In the world of regular medicine, the average patient has to wait 26 days to get an appointment with a primary care doctor, according to a study by Medical Economics magazine. In some places, patients wait an average of 44 days.
Then, once you get to the doctor’s office, you’ll wait some more. A study by the medical website Vitals found that patients wait an average of 18 minutes before seeing a doctor and that 30% of patients have left a doctor appointment because of a long wait.
Then the doctor visit itself is often relatively short.
“The typical primary physician today devotes just 15 minutes to patient visits, which happen 1.6 times a year on average,” Consumer Reports says. In contrast, concierge doctors spend an average of 35 minutes per visit, with patients averaging four visits per year, according to a University of Wisconsin report.
“I chose concierge medicine to practice medicine as I would want my family to be treated,” said Dr. Natasha Agbai, a concierge care pediatrician in San Francisco.
“Performing newborn visits in the comfort of a patient’s home is incredibly rewarding as a pediatrician. It allows me to provide care in a warm, familiar environment, away from the distractions and potential germs of a busy waiting room filled with sick children.”
What Kind of Patient Does This Work For?
Again, it depends on whom you ask.
Consumer Reports says concierge care makes the most sense for patients who have a chronic medical condition that requires frequent visits with a primary care physician.
AARP says patients who are 50 and older make up most of the clientele for concierge care.
However, concierge care doctors will tell you they see a wide range of patients.
“We see patients across all age groups — from younger adults who want to focus on health and wellness, to people approaching middle age who are concerned about preventing disease and extending their healthspan, to the older population who require more time and attention managing their chronic conditions,” Reisinger said.
(Also, you have to be able to afford it. Not all of us can afford to shell out $150 to $250 a month on top of our health insurance premiums.)
‘Concierge Medicine’ vs. ‘Direct Primary Care’
This part gets a little confusing.
Some doctors in the industry use the terms “concierge medicine” and “direct primary care” interchangeably. As far as they’re concerned, those two terms mean the same thing.
However, others make a distinction between the two. For example, organizations like the American Academy of Family Physicians break the difference down this way:
Direct primary care: These doctors don’t accept insurance, relying solely on patient fees. They’re more likely to charge monthly fees instead of an annual fee.
Concierge medicine: These doctors are more likely to bill your insurance on top of your membership fees. They’re more likely to charge an annual fee. And they’re more likely to cater to high-income populations.
In any case, if you can afford concierge care, it’s worth considering. Reisinger points to research showing that concierge care patients receive more preventive medical care and experience fewer hospitalizations, ER visits and urgent care visits.
“I’m able to devote quality time to my patients, which helps me understand their problems better, resulting in more effective care,” said Dr. Rosmy Barrios, senior medical adviser for the website Health Reporter. “When my patients need any help, they can just ring me up.”
Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.