Why concierge medicine will get bigger. Practices could shield patients from health-care turmoil

By Elizabeth O'Brien

If you've joined a concierge medical practice, recent trends in the worlds of health care and insurance may have you feeling good about your decision. If you haven't signed up with one of these practices—also called "boutique," "personalized" or "private-physician" practices—some of those same trends may lead you to consider it down the road.

Certainly, plenty of baby boomers have done the math and deemed the investment worthy. In the typical concierge experience, a primary-care doctor accepts insurance for routine services but also charges a non-reimbursable fee that pays for amenities like 24/7 access to the doctor, same-day appointments, longer appointment times and a greater degree of personalized attention. The annual fee for such practices currently averages about $1,800.

Now that the business model has been around for a while, more patients are saying that it involves less stress than a traditional medical practice. What's more, two recent studies that tried to measure the health impact of one popular concierge model found its patients had lower hospitalization rates and other benefits.

The approach has its critics, with some arguing that concierge medicine exacerbates the disparities in care between the haves and have-nots. But for people with the resources to afford it, the boutique-practice model clearly has a growing appeal.

While the number of concierge doctors remains small, it's growing at a rapid clip. In the U.S., there were about 4,400 private physicians in 2012, a 25% increase from 2011, according to the American Academy of Private Physicians. That's out of some 600,000 practicing doctors nationwide. At an average of roughly 350 patients per concierge doctor, that means more than 1.5 million Americans are under the care of a physician who provides an additional level of service in exchange for a fee.

Concierge medicine's perceived advantages will only grow in the coming years, experts say, as the traditional health-care system becomes even more strained. The full implementation of the Affordable Care Act next year is expected to bring more than 20 million formerly uninsured patients into the health-care system through 2022, exacerbating an existing physician shortage.

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