Joseph Scherger, a primary care physician at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, opened an email one morning earlier this month with an update on one of his patients who had recently suffered a heart attack.
The email had been sent directly by the patient, who wanted to put Scherger in touch with the cardiologist who had treated him while he had been traveling out of state.
Scherger, Eisenhower’s vice president of primary care, often uses email to correspond with his patients. In fact, email tends to be a big part of the day-to-day job for some of Eisenhower’s primary care physicians. Through a program called Eisenhower Primary Care 365, patients pay an annual fee to have direct email access to their doctors and other benefits.
Scherger calls the E365 program a new direct primary care model, one of many that have been popping up across the nation in recent years. It is intended to be a more-affordable version of expensive concierge medicine, in which patients pay a fee for 24/7, unlimited access to their primary care doctors.
Jay W. Lee, California Academy of Family Physicians president, said doctors involved in the program see it as a way to equalize and democratize care.
“What I’m most excited about is that we’re starting to innovate,” he said. “It’s clear that this has resonated with a population of clinical physicians. What I’ve seen is that there is growing interest, not only in California but across the country.”
With direct primary care, patients pay a subscription fee — either annually or monthly — that enables them to have immediate access to their doctors, scheduling same-day visits and bypassing the long wait times.
But rather than paying $1,800 to $5,000 a year for that privilege, as they would for concierge medicine, patients pay $395-$595 per year, depending on their age, in the E365 model.
“The real story is that alternatives to concierge medicine are emerging that are going to cause concierge medicine to recede,” Scherger said.
Scherger began developing the program in 2009, when a new outpatient clinic, the Eisenhower George and Julia Argyros Health Center, was about to open. He was faced with a recruitment challenge “because too many of the good primary care doctors were going into high-cost concierge medicine” in the Coachella Valley. So he developed a hybrid model, one that accepts most insurance and Medicare and covers the cost of non-visit communications through a fee.
Since launching, the program has gained steam and now has 14 doctors treating 6,500 patients at four locations in the Coachella Valley.
Personalized Care, Longer Visits
Direct primary care has several characteristics that are attractive to doctors, such as having fewer patients and being able to spend more time with them, Lee said.
“In many ways, the promise of it is that there is an opportunity to control flow and pace,” he said.
A typical primary care doctor may have 90-120 patient visits per week and can only spend 10-15 minutes with each patient. In contrast, an E365 doctor will have around 50 visits per week and can spend 20 minutes with a patient, Scherger said.
The average panel size for a primary care doctor is 2,000 to 3,000 patients. Concierge practices usually limit their physicians to 200 or 300 patients. Direct primary care models fall somewhere in between. In the case of the E365 program, physicians each take care of 850 to 950 patients, Scherger said.
Scherger says direct primary care models began emerging about 10 years ago because primary care physicians were getting burned out under the traditional private practice model. One early model was GreenField Health, launched in 2001. Another model, Qliance, reportedly has 35,000 patients, with about half of whom are enrolled in Medicaid.
According to a 2014 survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 2% of members were currently working in direct primary care settings and 7.2% reported they were currently determining if they would transform their practices to that model.
“The direct primary care model is slowly gaining momentum,” said Robert Wergin, the group’s president. He said the model is increasing in popularity because it moves away from the acute, episodic, fragmented care that is common with volume-based medical services, and it allows doctors more time to focus on quality of care rather than paperwork and billing.
Could Direct Primary Care Exacerbate a Physician Shortage?
One of the looming issues surrounding direct primary care is whether it will exacerbate the shortage of primary care doctors in California, particularly in the Coachella Valley where the shortage is severe.
The Coachella Valley has a cluster of nine cities, including Palm Springs in eastern Riverside County, a region containing both incredible wealth and far-reaching poverty.
“The question I have is around scale,” Lee said. “If everyone is doing this, are we going to meet the needs of the population?”
He is concerned because more patients are now covered by Medi-Cal as a result of the Affordable Care Act, and it’s unclear whether the direct primary care model will serve those patients.
Beth Capell, a policy advocate with Health Access California, said the direct primary care model eases physician workloads but doesn’t solve the issue of access to primary care for all populations in the Coachella Valley. The Coachella Valley and Merced are two of the most underserved regions in California, she said.
Nearly 40% of Coachella adults live in households below the federal poverty line, according to the Health Assessment and Research for Communities’ 2013 Executive Report. The report also estimates that about one-third of adults in the region, roughly 74,600 people, lack health insurance.
“The disparity in health resources only compounds the underlying reality that people who are low income need more access to care,” Capell said.
People who are affluent are generally healthier, while people with lower incomes are disproportionately likely to be in poorer health, often with multiple chronic conditions that are more difficult to manage, Capell said.
The UC-Riverside School of Medicine has launched several programs to expand the physician workforce in the region.
“We have a profound shortage, and our shortage is understated because of the number of concierge practices that exist in the Coachella Valley,” said John Heydt, the medical school’s senior associate dean of clinical affairs.
Market Forces May Be Driving Change
Heydt believes market forces are driving the rise of concierge and hybrid models. He predicts these models will gain even more popularity if insurers continue to expect doctors to see high volumes of patients for lower reimbursement rates.
“There are tremendous physician shortages on the horizon,” he said. “When anything is in short supply, the demand is high. And if you look at the day-to-day life of some physicians, they are run by their practices.”
Christopher Flores, who runs an independent direct primary care practice in Palm Desert, says E365 has filled a niche, and he expects the model to grow in coming years because doctors are feeling burnt out.
“The way the system is going, it’s becoming much more of an impersonal assembly line,” he said.
Whether direct primary care will succeed or evolve into something entirely different is up for debate.
“There is still a little uncertainty as to what the regulatory environment dictates,” Lee said. “I think those nuances have yet to be figured out.”
He stressed, though, that creating new models of care is critical given the pressures that primary care physicians are facing, such as high patient volumes and declining reimbursements. He sees new models that are not tied to in-person visits but that incorporate email, telemedicine, or telephone calls as the way forward.
“It’s pretty clear we don’t have enough supply to meet demand,” he said. “We can grow a workforce — but there’s a long tail on that — or we can practice better.”