Today, more primary care practices are affiliated with large health systems than private practices. Blue Cross Blue Shield recently reported it is moving into the provider arena, opening clinics in select Texas markets. Similarly, Optum, owned by United HealthCare Inc., is the largest network of provider groups in the country. And, if all goes well for CVS, it will soon take over Aetna.
There is no doubt about it: For-profit corporations are taking over the delivery of healthcare in America.
At first glance, this can seem like a good thing. The influx of investor cash makes everything look bigger and better. Offices get spruced up and slick websites that make booking appointments easier. Health systems tout efficiencies in their vertically-integrated models. Pharmacy urgent cares can diagnose and treat patients and in a one-stop shopping experience. This is excellent service, right? Not necessarily.
Corporations are businesses, not callings. Profit is the measure of their success. They’ve gambled on the idea that the market is demanding convenience, and they’ve invested in those systems. But what about quality? Do patients still want a standard of continuous care, empathy and understanding from a physician who knows them?
Consumers ultimately choose with their pocketbooks. Do they prefer convenience over quality? Sometimes. Younger and healthier patients, including those juggling careers and kids, just might. The lure of online appointment booking and one-stop shopping may be too enticing to ignore. These low-risk patients may be just right for a CVS Minute Clinic, where a nurse practitioner or physician assistant administers their care. But for more vulnerable populations, continuity of care from a trusted doctor is not a luxury — it can be a matter of life or death. These patients want to remain committed to their primary care physician.
It doesn’t have to be entirely one or the other, though. In an era with significant physician shortages, especially in rural areas, there may be room for both. And private practices can learn something from the corporate approach to healthcare.
If the world demands convenience, then it is important that private practice stay up to date. Private practices need modern, functioning websites so patients can easily use their smartphone to book an appointment or download forms in advance of their physicals. Online reputations must be properly managed and referrals sent electronically, for example.
Obviously, private practices don’t have the corporate cash to make major investments in modern conveniences. But in many ways, they can’t afford not to invest in themselves to improve patient care. After all, patient satisfaction is key to healthy, stable practices.
Fortunately, there are turnkey approaches private practices can use to help them in this digital age. There are also businesses that handle digital marketing and reputation management as part of a larger customer service support system.
Physicians and practic should explore their business relationships to make sure they are getting the most value possible out of them. Business relationships are symbiotic, and vendors should be adding services to support their clients whenever they can.
Wayne Lipton is managing partner for Concierge Choice Physicians, LLC, and is one of the most experienced and successful executives in concierge medicine. He was formerly the COO for PhyMatrix, a public healthcare company; COO for Physicians Choice, a Connecticut IPA and practice management company; and president and principal of Richmond Way Stores, a local chain of drug stores that he operated for 20 years. Lipton graduated from Harvard College and attended the University of Chicago Business School and the Boston Architectural Center.