Concierge Medicine: Pay for Perks

Imagine calling your doctor in the middle of the night, getting an appointment the next day and even having your physician accompany you on a brisk walk or a trip to the grocery store to jump-start your personalized wellness plan.

That kind of first class medical treatment can be yours—for a price.

As a result of the reported pressure on primary care physicians to treat high volumes of patients to keep their practices afloat, some doctors are joining so-called “concierge medicine” groups. The basic premise is you pay an annual membership fee, and in exchange, you get perks like 24/7 access to your doctor via cell phone, longer appointments and preventive health screenings. Concierge doctors see fewer patients than their peers, giving them more time for each appointment.

Fees and services vary by company, but one popular model is used by MDVIP, a Florida-based concierge group with doctors in Highland Park, Glenview and Chicago. A one-year MDVIP membership of $1,500 to $1,800 buys you increased access to your doctor, portable records, assistance getting care while traveling and a personalized wellness plan. An MDVIP membership doesn’t replace health insurance. Co-pays and other fees are billed to insurance carriers or directly to patients, just as they would be at a non-concierge doctor.

Mark Murrison, MDVIP’s president of marketing and innovation, touts the wellness plan as one of the chief advantages of membership. “We run a panel of diagnostics and labs, and then our screeners sit down and put together a wellness plan to determine the areas we need to be working on together to achieve the health goal,” Murrison says.

That proactive approach, Murrison says, keeps MDVIP members healthier: “We have access to data that shows our members are hospitalized 65 to 75 percent less than non-members.”

Another “pay-to-play” model is that offered by PinnacleCare Private Health Advisory, a Baltimore-based company with an office in Evanston. PinnacleCare members aren’t assigned to primary care physicians. Instead, they get health advisors who help them navigate complex medical situations by coordinating second opinions, finding specialists and explaining treatment options. Miles Varn, M.D., PinnacleCare’s chief medical officer, says annual fees range from $2,500 for healthy members to $7,000 or more, depending on a patient’s needs.

Varn says PinnacleCare members get individualized attention that can result in the best medical outcomes. He tells the story of one client who scheduled a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer at a respected medical center. The woman’s PinnacleCare advisor took her to a leading specialist, Varn says.

“They reread the pathology, and it was actually not cancer,” he says. “It really makes you think how many people have procedures that might have been unnecessary, just because of what they don’t know.”

Dr. Joel Shalowitz is the managing partner of a primary care practice with offices on the North Shore and a professor at Northwestern’s medical and business schools. He says many non-concierge physicians already offer the services promised by concierge groups. Most doctors, Shalowitz says, have 24/7 answering services and HMOs require physicians to see patients with serious conditions within a certain time frame.

“There’s nothing magical about concierge medicine, except that you’re buying access,” Shalowitz says.

Think of it as a perk, but with a price.