When my stepfather passed away at home late last year, his primary care physician, Dr. Stephen Cornwell, was the first person I called. That's not all that unusual, but here's what was.
Not only did the doctor answer right away -- I had dialed his personal mobile number -- but he was at the house a short time later to help with the necessary arrangements, and he stayed late into the night to make sure my mother was OK. He didn't need directions -- he had already been by once that day and had visited weekly in the months prior.
Direct phone access to your physician? Frequent house calls? My own doctor has a three-month wait for annual check-ups, so it got my attention.
The personalized, in-home care my stepfather received during his illness was invaluable, and a lifesaver for my mother -- and it's all thanks to a relatively new trend in medical care: concierge medicine.
What Is Concierge Medicine?
There are a number of different related terms, all with varying levels of service and cost -- you may have heard about direct primary care or retainer medicine -- but basically, concierge practices charge an annual or monthly fee in exchange for increased access to the physician and other services.
These vary by practice. For example, Dr. Cornwell's practice, Northern Virginia Family Practice, charges $1,250 to $1,500 a year for a range of benefits that include an annual wellness exam, same-day or next-day appointments, access to your doc via cellphone and online and even medical care for visiting family.
Some practices work much like what you are probably used to -- each visit requires a co-pay and is then billed to your insurance company or to Medicare. Others do not work with insurance and require patients to pay out of pocket for visits. These costs are often discounted or covered at least in part by the membership fee.
What Are the Benefits?
How long did you spend with your doctor on your last visit? According to The Atlantic, on average, new doctors might spend as little as eight minutes with each patient. And in addition to being rushed, your doctor is likely stressed-out and unhappy -- according to Concierge Medicine Today, more than half of the doctors surveyed have considered quitting.
Concierge medicine offers a better solution for many physicians. Thanks to the fee they charge, concierge doctors are able to limit the number of patients they accept to provide better service. This can include longer appointment times, house calls, and closely coordinating with specialists.
"Now I practice medicine the way I did in the 1980s when my visits were 30 minutes long," Kansas City doctor Marie Delcambre, MD, tells Concierge Medicine Today. Atlanta-based physician Daniel Jaul, MD, enjoys treating patients outside the office: "Seeing patients in their own home has great value in and of itself, especially when you see kids."
Patients benefit from the short wait times, more face time with their doctor, and when necessary, home visits and phone or online consultations. Coordinated care is a definite bonus for those who also see specialists. During my stepfather's illness, he saw two oncologists and required several hospital stays, all overseen by Dr. Cornwell's office.
Is a Concierge Doctor Right for You?
For the relatively healthy, concierge practices don't make much sense. I only see my physician once a year, if that, and my kids haven't needed much more than an annual checkup so far, so for our family, the cost of a concierge doctor just isn't worth it.
Those who have chronic illnesses, frequent injuries, or are simply getting older and need more care may want to consider it if they can swing the fee. The same goes for those who are relatively well-off and are willing to pay up for convenience.
If you're interested, MDVip.com, a network of physicians who offer this type of care, is a good place to start. You can search by ZIP code to find doctors in your area who are accepting patients. Concierge Choice Physicians offers searches by state.
Here are a few key questions to ask:
How much is the membership fee and what is included?
Does the practice bill insurance and/or Medicare or do patients pay for services out of pocket? If it's out of pocket, ask to see a list of common charges.
How many patients does the practice have?
What options are available for you to communicate with your doctor -- email, cellphone, etc.?
You will also want to consult with a tax adviser -- fees paid to concierge doctors are sometimes tax-deductible or can be covered by a Flexible Savings Account, depending on what services are included.
Robyn Gearey is a Motley Fool contributor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Click here to check out The Motley Fool's free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.