App-Based Concierge Doctors Are Booming in the Age of Coronavirus
By Nadja Sayej / March 22, 2020 9:53 am

“We doctors are just a tap away,” says Dr. Nate Favini, a doctor in a video message to the members of an app-based concierge medical care company, Forward. “If you’re experiencing any symptoms, use the tool in our app; our coronavirus assessment tool.”

Imagine it was all that easy? To test yourself for COVID-19 from the comfort of your home through an app, by taking an online test and texting or face-timing a doctor? Well, now it is, at a price. Usually, it’s a set membership, but with the current crisis, and in an attempt to help prevent hospital overcrowding, some of these medical companies are offering a portion of their services for free (like an online COVID-19 risk assessment test), while others are offering free face-time consults with board-certified US doctors for coronavirus-related symptoms. It’s an attempt to help prevent hospital overcrowding.

In a country with a murky — not to mention overloaded — health care system, it makes sense, then, why there is a boom of concierge doctors in America. It’s a fast-growing market and could be a need to help fight the pandemic which has taken the world by storm. A concierge doctor is a physician who has a direct relationship with their patient by phone, text and in-person appointments; they know and understand your medical history well. The call this privilege “primary care.” The cost? An annual fee, often billed as a membership. Most doctors have a small percentage of clients for this service, while carrying on their regular practice. This two-tiered system historically has a bad rap; it has been frowned upon for burdening the middle and lower class citizens with additional premiums they can’t afford (one example is Solis Health nabbing COVID-19 test kits for their clients, who pay $5,000 a year for their memberships). Meanwhile, another health company is selling the kits for $139, starting March 23. But in light of the current health crisis, could the concierge medical sector be changing under pressure, and expanding to finally be more inclusive?

It could be needed now, more than ever. The World Health Organization is advising countries to test every suspected case, but the demand is exceeding supply. Only 1.5 million testing kits have been sent to 120 countries. Across America, there’s a drive-through clinic in Denver, while in Seattle, Boston and New Rochelle, patients are not being tested with the kits. Only 2,000 people have been tested in the state of New York, while California has 8,000 test kits. There aren’t enough tests available for the potential coronavirus cases needed.

What if you have COVID-19 symptoms? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website explains how to get tested: “Call your doctor: If you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and develop a fever and symptoms, such as cough or difficulty breathing, call your healthcare provider for medical advice.”

On the Forward app, patients can answer doctor’s questions instead, like “Do you have shortness of breath?” and “Have you had close contact with anyone who traveled to any of the following locations?”

Adrian Aoun, the CEO and founder of the Los Angeles-based medical firm, tells InsideHook the remote assessment app is for their members who have virus symptoms virus.

“The care team assesses their risk based on the results of the assessment and can quickly triage those who may have the virus,” says Aoun. “As a supply of tests is still limited in the U.S., members whose remote assessment indicates are most in need, are then scheduled for testing.”

Their in-app screenings increased by 400 percent over the past week, while their chat volume increased 20 percent over the past. “We’re working on making our remote assessment available to everyone who needs it, with plans to launch a public portal later this week,” he adds. 

With the risk of spreading COVID-19, doctors are encouraging members to stay at home. “We can assess their symptoms and quickly triage those who may have the virus,” says Aoun.

What do doctors think of that? Dr. Sanford Friedman, who runs a practice in Manhattan, is part of the network of concierge doctors with Concierge Choice Physicians, is relying on the phone for the pandemic. “The role of the concierge physician is immediacy and the main tool of the pandemic is the phone,” he says. “I have patients calling me up the wazoo with fever, I’ve discouraged people from coming,” he says. “The phone becomes the critical instrument for dealing with the virus; understanding a patient’s medical history and advising them.”

He explains that if a physician has regular contact with a patient, and understands their medical history, a prognosis could be given by phone.

“But if you don’t know the patient’s history, you’re going to have a missed opportunity or give false reassurance.” He points out. “But a central person with a good knowledge base taking care of the patient would save money in the long run.”

The membership costs roughly $200 a month and with a volume of clients, that supports the doctor. That’s roughly $2,400 a year, on average, for what some people consider to be peace of mind.

Are the clients all rich? “It’s a broad range of people, I have a lot of middle-class people who wanted to see if I was worth it or not,” says Dr. Friedman. “I have poor clients who have complicated illnesses I’m taking care of anyway, because I know if they go to a clinic, they’re screwed. Most of my patients are not people making billions of dollars.  I have some fabulously wealthy patients but they’re a minority.”

To Friedman, the concierge medical care isn’t a substitute for traditional health insurance, it’s an add-on for wellness. “It covers things that insurance wouldn’t cover; patients would still need insurance for their sick visits, or if they needed to see specialists, get admitted to a hospital, testing and medications.” 

Keith Elgart, the COO of New York’s Concierge Choice Physicians, says this membership-based service isn’t just for the 1 percent. “These doctors have an obligation to take care of everybody,” he says. “If you’re a concierge member, its not like you’re getting a test other people aren’t.”

He compares it to a gym membership: Some sign up for the gym, but never go. Some are occasional gym-goers. Others work out every day. “And some sign up for a personal trainer,” he says. “It’s an added level for their personal wellness. This is the same thing.”

When it comes to COVID-19, everyone’s concern is accurate information, and with concierge medicine, patients can text or call their doctors. “A lot of doctors are putting out communications with their patients,” he adds. “It’s the heightened awareness that everyone deserves and wants; there’s more of an availability tailored to your needs. For some, it isn’t worthwhile, but for others its beneficial.”

While Concierge Choice recommends patients keep their usual health insurance, Forward replaces the need for American health care. This primary care, for $149 a month, is like a tech-savvy family physician for those who trust the tech they’re trailblazing; with advanced medical technology, including biometric body scans, genetic testing and real-time blood testing in 12 minutes, as well as no-wait communication with doctors.

If clients need outside referrals, the doctors at Froward are supposed to help. Though toughly 30 percent of their clients don’t have any other health insurance, the rest have American health care packages. It makes sense to have a Forward membership if you have a high-deductible plan.

With affordable premiums, concierge medical care could be the future of healthcare in America. Though some think this is just for the 1 percent, rates range from roughly $150 to $250 a month. Could it eventually be available to all? What if billionaires chipped in to make it free to everyone? Could these primary care companies lead the way with tech innovation? They’re relying on automation for repetitive work that inflates costs in the traditional health care system.

“Our primary goal is to make quality primary care accessible to everyone, and tackle the cost and access to care,” says Aoun. “We believe that this can only be done with innovation through technology; it can help augment the amazing humans working in our system. We’re giving doctors the tools they deserve, while working in one of society’s most noble professions.”

For those of us who aren’t members, we can watch doctors like Dr. Favini talk about COVID-19 in a video message on Facebook, which he concludes with the phrase: “I really look forward to taking care of you.”