Four years ago, I was fully employed in a "traditional" rheumatology clinic. I met Alan, a 42-year-old gentleman who was a high school math teacher in my town. He was the first patient on my panel that day. Once I entered the examining room, Alan greeted me with, "You are the third rheumatologist who I have consulted for what everybody believes is fibromyalgia. I am paying out of pocket to see you as you are not on my insurance panel. I have researched your background, and I have high expectations of you." He was cutting to the chase.
Alan was struggling with pain for about one and a half years. He insisted that he was very healthy before his symptoms started abruptly. In the past 2 years, his personal life had been under much stress as he was caring for a disabled child and facing an imminent divorce. While his symptoms were suggestive of an inflammatory arthritis, his workup was not. Unfortunately, the allocated time with Alan was 15 minutes — too short to cover both medical and personal struggles. Meanwhile, my nurses had to room in another two patients. I felt rushed and responsible for not letting the others wait. I asked Alan to keep a diary of his symptoms and come back in 2 weeks. A few minutes after discharging Alan, my nurse followed and asked me, "Where would you like me to add this patient, as you have no openings for 4 months ?"
"Overbook him!" I said.
This was happening almost every day . Scheduled patients, overbooked patients, tens of emails, calls to patients, and fights with insurance companies to approve tests and medications. Nearly every day I was getting home, preparing dinner, feeding my family, and going back to writing notes, as I would be financially penalized if my notes were not submitted in 24-48 hours. I had no time for my family and didn't even think about any hobbies.
In 2 weeks, Alan came back for his visit. That day, I paid someone to take my kids to school and came to my office earlier. We had 1 hour to talk about his history. At the end of the visit, Alan said, "What kind of doctor are you? You looked into my eyes while I was talking, and you didn't touch the computer keyboard?!" His remark was not uncommon for me. Most patients complain that physicians spend more time typing than looking at them. Maybe patients do not realize, but this is the only way that physicians get paid: writing the "proper notes" and placing the correct billing code.
Alan was diagnosed and treated successfully for seronegative rheumatoid arthritis. In 1 year, paying out of pocket to see me, he ended up spending many, many thousands of dollars. As you can imagine, I was not in control of those bills.
After 4 years in the traditional system, I decided to change something for my patients and for myself as their physician, and as a mother of three kids, a wife, a daughter, and a sister.
I decided to create a clinic where I am comfortable practicing "uncomplicated" medicine, as a friend of mine said. Today, insurance companies are restricting patients to limited panels of specialists. They dictate patients' care, giving the false impression that they will save money. Insurance companies interfere with the physician's medical judgment. They make algorithms to approve tests and have preferred lists of medication. They decide whether a test or a medication is appropriate for you. In addition, they don't disclose how much they pay for your consultation, tests, and medication, and they ban the contracted parties from disclosing this information. They force patients to use their testing facilities and mailing pharmacies. Although patients and employers are the payers, they do not have access to their insurance companies' "real" prices.
I decided that it was time to take control of my time spent with patients to make my services available when patients need me, without becoming a financial burden. I created a clinic where patients do not have copayments and will never receive a "surprise bill." All costs are transparent to patients, including laboratory and imaging tests. Patients can talk to me on the phone, send a text, or email. A clinic where patients can talk to the physician on the phone or send a text or email? This is direct specialty care.
Is direct care a new concept? No, not at all. Is direct care the same as concierge medicine? I think it is a type of concierge service, but without the price tag.
Physicians practicing the traditional concierge medicine model here in the United States still bill patients' insurance. In addition, to make their practice profitable, they charge a retainer fee that will allow them to keep a small patient panel. In contrast, direct care specialists do not have a contract with insurance companies.
I believe that both concierge medicine and direct care specialists offer exceptional care and better access to physicians. The difference is in costs: One is more expensive than the other. Traditional concierge medicine practices usually ask for high retainer fees in addition to copayments for visits. They do not offer any access to discounted pricing for laboratory or imaging tests. Patients continue to receive surprise bills from their insurance company.
Why don't direct specialty care practices contract with insurance companies? Contracting with insurance companies increases a practice's overhead costs (as more money is spent on coding and billing services and more office staff). When practice overhead is lower, the cost of patient care can be significantly lower. Patients pay a monthly membership to become a direct specialty care practice member. The membership covers the cost of visits and access to the benefits of the practice. In addition, direct care specialists do not charge copayments or send surprise bills. They can contract directly with laboratory and imaging centers and offer discounted prices. Patients with insurance are welcome to use it to cover tests, imaging, and medication. The patient has the power to choose between paying a cash price vs a "covered" service.
Most young patients, like Alan, have a high-deductible plan. A few regular blood tests might cost a patient hundreds of dollars before meeting a deductible. One MRI scan costs $4000-$6000. Patients who join a direct specialty care practice pay $30-$40 for regular labs and $400-$500 for an MRI.
I am now 2 years into practicing medicine as a direct care specialist. It is not a dream anymore. Yes, you may call it "concierge medicine without the price tag." I call it "direct specialty care." My patients and I are both accountable to one another. Together, we make a plan, and we have the time to implement it.
I am not alone. Other specialists are embracing this model. That is why we created the Direct Specialty Care Alliance, a place where physicians are welcome to network and share with others what they have learned along their journeys.
After I started my company, Alan was one of the first patients to join. He embraced my practice model and became one of the ambassadors of the direct specialty care movement. He is back to a normal life of taking care of his family, getting his wife back, and teaching math to high school kids.
Dr Girnita is the CEO and founder of RheumatologistOnCall, actively seeing patients via telemedicine in 10 US states. She is an advocate for digital health and telemedicine that will empower physicians and patients to take charge of their medical care. She is a co-founder of the Direct Specialty Care Alliance. She is on Twitter @RheumOncall, Instagram @rheumatologistoncall, and LinkedIn.
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Lead image: Diana Girnita, MD, PhD
Image 1: Diana Girnita, MD, PhD
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Any views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of WebMD or Medscape.
Cite this: Direct Specialty Care: Concierge Service Without the Price Tag - Medscape - Mar 01, 2022.