PartnerMD CEO Linda Nash Photo courtesy PartnerMD
The idea came to Linda Nash some time in the second hour of lying on a stretcher in a Bozeman, Mont., emergency room hallway with two cracked ribs. "I was in a lot of pain," she says. "I started thinking: ‘What is wrong with this picture?' "
While vacationing in the Rocky Mountains in June 2003, Nash was thrown from her horse and taken to a nearby hospital. The emergency room doctors wouldn't admit her until they had some basic information from her primary care doctor. But despite numerous attempts to contact him, he couldn't be reached.
On returning to Richmond, the entrepreneur looked into concierge-style medicine. The health care model provides increased physician access and a focus on preventive care for an annual fee. Eight months later, in February 2003, Nash opened the first PartnerMD office, in Henrico County, with one doctor and 40 patients. In little more than a decade, the private physician practice has grown to include 24 physicians, more than 100 employees and more than 6,000 individual and corporate clients across several states, including South Carolina, Georgia and Washington. In December, it opened a new office in Midlothian.
"In the past year alone, we've doubled our employee base, our physicians and our number of locations," Nash says. "That's a lot of growth."
The Richmond-area practice is on trend with the rest of the country, as membership-based primary care practices grow to meet the needs of patients who can afford them. According to the American Academy of Private Physicians, there were about 4,400 concierge doctors nationwide in 2012, up 25 percent from 2011. "We've seen a dramatic increase [in concierge medical practices] since the re-election of President Obama," says Concierge Medicine Today editor Michael Tetreault.
"A lot of patients are choosing it because they're confused by all of the uncertainty in health care," Nash says. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 34 million people in the United States will gain health care coverage by 2021 through the Affordable Care Act — an influx of patients that, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, will lead to a national shortage of 91,500 physicians by 2020, including 45,400 in primary care.
Other people, Nash says, choose it "because they're extremely busy and they value their time, or they just want a closer relationship with their physician."
That was the case for Chesterfield resident Susan Rosen, who recalls spending hours in crowded waiting rooms only to see her doctor for 10 minutes. "Sometimes it was 40 minutes before they even called you back, and then you would sit in a room with the door closed and wait another 25 minutes," she says.
After retiring early from Philip Morris USA, Rosen switched to concierge medical care. Joining PartnerMD, she says, helped her focus more on her health: At the advice of her doctor, the 61-year-old started walking and eating better, and lost weight, to the point where it was no longer necessary to take one of her diabetes medications.
Midlothian PartnerMD members pay an annual fee of $1,700 to $1,900 for conveniences including 24/7 direct physician access, no-wait appointments and prevention-focused care. While physicians at traditional primary care practices have 3,000 to 6,000 patients, each PartnerMD doctor is capped at 600. "My patients feel like they get Marcus Welby-type care," says Dr. Susan Scharpf of PartnerMD. At her previous practice in Midlothian, Scharpf would be at work until 11 p.m. working on medical charts "and trying to make sure everything was accurate when I was nearly falling asleep." Now, she says, she has more time to develop personal relationships with her patients.
The primary care model is not without its critics. Some say the spread of membership medical practices will worsen the country's primary-care physician shortage and exacerbate disparities in care between the haves and the have-nots. But Scharpf says she sees patients from a range of economic backgrounds. "People value the extra time and attention they get," she says. "If they can pay a little bit more, they find this of value."
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.