Sunday, January 22, 2012

Concierge Medicine and Boutique Medical Practices: Cure or Disease?

Some time ago, I rented a car during a visit to another city. I chose among the various categories of vehicles which are listed from the last expensive to the most costly. Here were my choices.

• Economy

• Compact

• Intermediate

• Standard

• Full Size

• Premium

• Luxury

As I have pointed out on this blog with regard to medical care, people spend other people’s money much more easily than they spend their own. This is why I have argued that patients need to have some ‘skin in the game’ to serve as a brake on profligate medical spending. There may be other effective brakes to consider, but diagnostic and therapeutic restraint demanded by patients is a potent and reasonable option.

In the rental car case, I was not on someone else’s expense account, but was handing over Kirsch cash. I chose a standard sized vehicle. Of course, I could have saved $$$ by driving off in an economy vehicle, but rental cars are priced like movie popcorn. For a few dollars more per day, you can drive a bigger car. It is a brilliant pricing strategy that encourages the consumer to upgrade.

Here’s the point. I ordered and paid for a standard sized car. I cannot expect that I will be presented with a luxury automobile when I arrive at the rental car lot. Of course, I can upgrade to a higher category, but I will have to pay more. Isn’t this fair? If you are paying for a Chevy, don’t expect to drive away in a Cadillac.

This concept relates to the practice of concierge medicine, also known by the even more derogatory description of boutique medicine. In these practices, patients pay a premium to the physician in return for higher level medical services. These physicians can earn the same income, or more, while caring for much fewer patients.

Why Do Insured Patients Pay More For Concierge Care?

• Same day appointments

• On time office visits that last as long as needed

• Direct access to the physician’s cell phone

• Physicians accompanying patients to specialists’ offices

• Comprehensive annual physical examinations and health review

• Emphasis on preventive medicine, nutrition and wellness

• Posh waiting rooms with New Age soothing music

Concierge Medicine Criticisms

• It’s not fair

• Insured patients should be getting these services anyway

• It’s elitist

• It siphons primary care physicians away from those who can’t afford concierge care

Concierge medicine didn’t emerge in a vacuum. It was not concocted by greedy physicians who were seeking to provide Cadillac care so they could continue to drive Cadillacs.

1903 Cadillac

Boutique medical practices have become popular because private practice primary care physicians faced three mounting challenges.

• Financial pressure with declining reimbursements and rising overhead

• Declining quality of care from seeing higher volume of patients

• Burnout

Concierge medicine is a response to this reality. Concierge practices are financially solvent and provide premier quality medical care to a smaller group of patients. This is not exclusively a benefit for the wealthy. Many average income folks have decided that spending $100 each month for superior medical services is worth it for them and their families. How much do you spend each month on your cell phone? Is concierge medical care more important to you than an iPad, a smart phone or joining a pricey gym? We all make choices in how we spend our money.

For those who want this higher level service for their families, they may need to cut back on other expenses. What kind of car are your driving now? Full size? Luxury? Sports Car? Hybrid? Perhaps, it is worth downsizing your wheels and upgrading your medical care.

I realize that many folks don’t have this option right now, particularly under current economic conditions. We all wish that they, and everyone, could receive concierge level medical care, but this is not how our society works.

Concierge medicine isn’t the avaricious aggressor here. It’s self-defense.


  1. Well stated argument. I have personally likened it to the difference between flying first class and coach. Everybody gets to the same destination, the difference is how you feel once you get there.

  2. These types of practice are great satisfiers for both physicians and patients. There is no problem with them. I would hope that physicians who do concierge practices would also volunteer and give back to society. They make tons of money and have extra time (not a bad thing) and are in a position to give back too.

  3. The great thing about running in a concierge practice is that without insurance contracts, one is free to care for patients for whatever payment one likes, including free. While insurance contracts prevent discounting care, in a contract free practice nothing prevents a doctor from providing free or heavily discounted care to needy patients with limited resources, or even to provide care in a barter system.

  4. Appreciate comments. Do the commenters see any downsides to concierge medicine?

  5. That's a great distinction that gables puts out. I like it. Just like flying first class and coach!

  6. The downside I see is lower income people loose out, again. So the disparity gap between the those with discretionary income who can afford this type of health care and those with not widens. And what does concierge medicine do to overall costs to society? Would it drive up costs?

  7. Don't see how concierge medicine increases medical costs, except for the patient. With regard to your point that those with more funds will have access to higher quality medical care, I agree. These folks also drive more expensive cars, take exotic vacations and have a higher standard of living. Should we prevent those who can afford better medical care to purchase it?

  8. That was a great argument! Thanks for laying it out there like that, it definitely made me think!

  9. Thanks, Meagan. Hope to see you back again and often.

  10. Dr. Kirsch: To your point regarding concierge medicine that doesn't increase medical costs except for the individual patient: My understanding is that more expensive procedures, use of brand-name drugs over generic drugs and the American way of over-treatment drives up the costs for all of American society. It's one of the reasons the cost of care is so outrageous today. Is that not the case?

  11. To the Unknown commenter, I agree that overtreatment is the fundamental cause of the incineration of health care dollars. The public has an insatiable appetite for care that is generally paid for by someone else. The medical profession is a willing accomplice. Let's hope that the health reform 'cure' won't be worse than the disease.

  12. As much as three quarters of hospital staff are usually burdened with some sort of billing-related work in a traditional billing system. Opting for electronic medical billing solutions (ones that come with free EMR plans) that fit easily into the healthcare business' workflow are key to freeing up staff resources.
    Medical Billing Services

  13. You can all pat yourself on the backs about how great this is, but it is very painful for patients when the only specialists in an area adopt this practice and thus force patients to drive long distances to find a doctor that will see them for insurance payments only.

    It's fine for you to expect patients to lower their quality of life so that they can save enough money to pay to maintain your quality of life. It's hard to not see this as greedy and unethical.

    What do the poor do when all the specialists in an area go to this model? Go untreated? Die?