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Buying Health Care from a Boutique

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Somehow, I don’t think of money-back guarantees when I think about going to the doctor. Yet as textbook marketing principles creep into health care, a few medical providers are beginning to look like sellers of toothpaste and detergents. It's modern marketing meets old-fashioned medicine! Some of the newish boutique medical practices are prime examples.

The first offer from One Medical Group arrived in a grayish brochure with a soft-sell pitch enticing me with a “special offer for new members.” If I joined by March 3rd, the first three months of my membership would be free. If for any reason I was not satisfied, the group would refund my money.

After the second promotional offer landed in my mailbox, I checked out One Medical Group. Their second brochure was more eye-catching with its orange cover and stepped up the pitch. Still no high pressure, though: “See inside for this season’s latest, most coveted MUST-HAVES. Plus one essential every woman should have.” That sounded like a fashion promotion from Black and White. Indeed, the brochure said: “Healthy. It’s the new black.” One page listed three other “must-haves”: a dress with bold prints, Bordeaux nails and an infinity scarf.

The one “essential” was “a primary care doctor’s office designed around you and your busy lifestyle.” That sounded appealing. Like most people, I don’t like to waste time in doctors’ offices. And apparently the membership fee − $199 for a year − would guarantee longer visits that start on time, doctors who will communicate by email and “truly listen,” online scheduling and Rx rewards.

One Medical Group’s website reinforces how cheap their fee is − “less than the cost of a gym, a weekly latte or your cable bill, and it takes less than 5 minutes to join online.” Ah, the old tried and true pitch used through the years to sell just about everything. Such marketing gives the impression that the price of something is really affordable. But in medicine it’s hard to know prices before you get sick or, in many cases, until after you receive a bill or explanation of benefits. So health care may or may not be affordable depending on how sick you are, the fees you rack up and the generosity of your insurance coverage.

One Medical Group’s website does list a range of possible fees for the group’s six Manhattan offices. Injections cost between $25 and $150; procedures cost between $90 and $160; and an initial office visit is $150. But the schedule on the website does not list costs for any specific procedures or specific tests that might be necessary. You would have to know what procedures or tests you need, find out the One Medical Group prices, compare those prices with those of other practices, and figure out how much your insurer would actually pay before you could conclude that One Medical Group offers low-priced health services.

Hooking patients with a cheap sign-up fee and three months free obscures what their real costs might eventually be.

I can understand the appeal of paying an extra fee to ensure that someone will look after you when you get sick, especially when some doctors now refuse patients on Medicaid and Medicare and even those approaching Medicare age. The founder of One Medical Group, Dr. Tom X. Lee, told the New York Times he saw “a growing chasm between the ideals of medicine and what’s actually practiced,” and he wanted to change that. He’s banking that the low fee along with the promise of a little extra service will prompt patients, especially young ones, to join.

Is the group seeking only young and healthy patients? The first brochure listed seven carriers whose insurance would be accepted. The fine print said it accepted Medicare. The second brochure listed six carriers, but the fine print did not mention Medicare. Although a customer service rep told me the practice did accept Medicare, the promotional literature with references to fashion and busy lifestyles suggests the docs would prefer a younger crowd.

Should you bite for one of these lower-cost, concierge practices? As with most services, it comes down to how much you want to pay for convenience, what you need and what you have now. I can get a shot for typhoid fever for the same $90 from my own doctor and save the “membership” fee. He returns my calls, too.

More Blog Posts by Trudy Lieberman

author bio

Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for more than 40 years, is an adjunct associate professor of public health at Hunter College in New York City. She had a long career at Consumer Reports specializing in insurance, health care, health care financing and long-term care. She is a longtime contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review and blogs for its website, CJR.org, about media coverage of health care, Social Security and retirement. As a William Ziff Fellow at the Center for Advancing Health, she contributes regularly to the Prepared Patient Blog. Follow her on twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.


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Health Care Cost   Pay for your Health Care   Inside Healthcare   Health Insurance  


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February 25, 2013 at 6:16 AM

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