‘Concierge medicine’ grows among wealthy people during pandemic. But at what cost to the rest of us?

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A health care provider prepares a client for an IV infusion — a procedure offered at some “concierge medicine” practices. Photo by Shutterstock.

When you walk into Dr. David Nazarian’s Beverly Hills waiting room, you might think you’ve accidentally entered a spa. 

Clients sit on soft plushy couches instead of hard plastic chairs, and eat full-sized candy bars instead of those stale peppermints commonplace in doctors’ offices. Plus, his staff offers a vitamin B12 IV drip to each person who walks through his doors.. 

That’s because Nazarian isn’t your average general practitioner. He’s a concierge doctor, which means his patients pay him upwards of $9,500 a year just to make appointments with him – and that doesn’t even include the costs of visits and treatments. In return, he picks up the phone at all hours and even does house calls. 

Nazarian says COVID has business booming.

He says patient care is different now, though.  “People getting sick with COVID and also people who want preventative care — they want to make sure they’re at their best health. So yes, it’s been very, very busy.”

Concierge medicine has become increasingly popular during the pandemic as people pay to avoid crowded and potentially infectious waiting rooms — if they can afford it. You can find lots of practices like this one in the wealthier enclaves of LA – think Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Malibu, and the Pacific Palisades. And they’re popping up all over the nation, from Silicon Valley to SoHo.

Bret Jorgensen, the CEO of national concierge medicine network MDVIP, says more doctors and patients have been joining his network over the past two years.

“We’ve seen growth during the pandemic, and we’ve seen it nationally and in LA as well,” Jorgensen says. “So the pandemic has actually been a positive impact on our business in terms of membership growth, and that’s been true in almost every market in the country.”

He believes this growth isn’t just short-term, either. He says his clientele have been cancelling their memberships less often than they used to.

“They value this model of care and we expect them to stick around for the long haul,” Jorgensen says.

The growth of concierge medicine practices may be a boon to wealthy patients and their doctors, but it has some observers worried. Health care advocates fear that as doctors move into concierge practices, they leave behind lots of patients who can’t afford to follow. That means doctors who don’t charge pricey retainers will have more, and sicker, patients. 

“Part of the idea of this kind of care is you’d have a provider who has a smaller number of patients. So it’s keeping other people out, it’s keeping other potential patients out of health care,” says Kiran Savage-Sangwan, Executive Director of the California Pan Ethnic Healthcare Network. “What we need is a system where we have universal coverage and everybody has access.”

She’s worried the popularity of concierge medicine might worsen a deeply entrenched health care divide that was brought into stark relief during the pandemic. 

“If wealthy people can opt out and design their own system that’s only available to them, then we have less ability to fix the system for everybody,” Sangwan says.

Concerns about growing inequity in the health care system seemingly haven’t been stopping patients from flocking to Nazarian’s business as the pandemic drags on. He says he’ll be monitoring COVID trends closely to make sure he can provide absolutely everything his clients desire.