Mary Lou Rothman has her doctor's email and cellphone number, with permission to call day or night.
When she recently came down with a stomachache, she called the office and got an appointment within three hours.
When the stomachache turned out to be appendicitis, her doctor, Marcy Zwelling, went to the hospital with her and stayed by her side through two surgeries, the second brought on by excessive bleeding. Only after 2 a.m., when it was clear the second surgery had been successful, did Dr. Zwelling go home.
"She was practically sitting on my shoulder the whole time, her in conjunction with (the surgeon)," says Rothman, 69, who is expected to make a full recovery.
"I'm sure everyone thought, who is this person in ICU that she's got doctors on either side of her? But that's what we pay for. Our concierge (medical) service provides us with 24/7 care."
Rothman, a figure skating judge from Cypress, Calif., does pay for the VIP treatment, but it's less than you might expect. She's one of more than 200,000 Americans, from members of Congress to teachers to bus drivers, who pay their doctors up front for more personalized and attentive medical care.
While some concierge practices charge patients as much as $15,000 a year, the typical charge appears to be about $1,500 to $2,000, according to a 2010 report from the University of Chicago and Georgetown University. The fee often covers a comprehensive physical lasting more than an hour, as well as doctor's visits and an array of extras from cellphone access and wellness programs to direct involvement in specialist referrals and hospitalizations.
The fee typically does not cover hospital or specialist fees and may not include all care by the concierge doctor, so patients still need medical insurance.
Concierge medical care, which got its start in Seattle in the late 1990s and has been adopted by an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 doctors, is controversial. Some critics say these relatively small practices (doctors often see a few hundred patients, rather than 2,000 to 4,000) are elitist and could contribute to a shortage of primary care physicians.
In an email exchange, Michael Stillman, an internist at the Boston University School of Medicine and a critic of concierge medicine, called the practice a "blatant money grab" and raised the specter of reduced access to care.
"Imagine a country in which every physician took on only a few hundred retainer fee-paying patients," Stillman wrote.
"Where would people of modest and even average incomes receive their care?"
Supporters of concierge medicine say that it may encourage more medical students to pursue primary care, easing access problems in the long term, and that concierge doctors can provide free or reduced-cost service for the poor.
"Ten percent of my patients are scholarship patients," says Zwelling.
"I'm able to do scholarship patients because I'm otherwise paid. The patient I saved last week in the hospital — she doesn't pay a dime. … As (immediate past) president of the (American Academy of Private Physicians), I keep track of my friends: Everyone has scholarship programs, and everyone's proud to do it. It's part of what we do."
Patients choose concierge care for a wide range of reasons; some want a doctor who will actively manage a serious illness or serve as an advocate within the medical system. Some are drawn to the convenience of concierge care, and some like the emphasis on prevention and wellness.
"I felt like if I joined a practice like that it would force me to pay more attention to my health," says Jackson Despres, 63, a real estate developer from Smithfield, R.I., who joined the concierge practice of Lewis Weiner about five years ago and has since referred six people to him.
Rothman, a longtime patient of Zwelling's, wasn't happy when her doctor made the switch to concierge care, reducing her patient load from about 4,000 to about 400 and charging an extra fee, which now amounts to about $2,000 per year for Rothman.
But Rothman is a big fan of Zwelling, whom she describes as extremely determined — "like a dog with a bone" — when it comes to pursuing health care solutions for her patients. So Rothman signed on for concierge care, as, eventually, did her husband, Dave.
Want a doctor at your beck and call?
Growing number of 'concierge' doctors offer personalized care, exceptional access in exchange for widely ranging annual fees