Hospitals are Embracing Shared Medical Appointments as a Way to Manage Patient Volumes

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SMA-thumb1With physicians more overwhelmed than ever before, hospitals are searching for ways to manage the patient flow. One innovation, of sorts, gaining in popularity, Anna Gorman reports in the Los Angeles Times, is the shared medical appointment, where groups of patients with similar needs are seen at once. This is, quite obviously, a departure from the traditional one-on-one appointment.

Shared medical appointments are one way healthcare organizations are trying to manage the influx of patients into the system and the number of patients who are suffering from chronic diseases.

Well-known hospitals like UC San Diego and the Martin Luther King outpatient and specialty health clinic in Los Angeles offer group appointments for diabetes, HIV, and liver-disease patients as an option, Gorman writes, and Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Ohio are developing their own shared-appointment programs.

According to the article, “Proponents say the model allows patients to get appointments faster and spend more time with doctors. Physicians like not having to repeat themselves several times a day to people with the same ailments. Research shows that for certain patients, group visits can reinforce healthy behaviors and reduce emergency room visits.”

Indeed, one physician extolled the virtues of peer pressure in getting patients to adopt healthier lifestyle choices.

The elephant in the room is, of course, privacy.

Rabeh M.A. Soofi, an attorney who specializes in privacy cases told Gorman, “It’s a recipe for disaster. It is just a matter of time before there is going to be an increase in litigation involving group physician visits.”

Each patient involved in the group appointment is required to sign a confidentiality agreement, and the hospitals offering them realize shared appointments won’t work for everyone.

Most of the patients, however, who do take advantage of this option see the advantages in being held accountable to a group, especially when it comes to adopting better eating habits and losing weight.

According to endocrinologist Thomas Friedman, the weight loss is “one key advantage of group appointments. In addition to seeing the doctor, patients regularly interact with dietitians, orthopedists, social workers and one another. And they learn from questions others raise and how others are managing their disease.”

Beyond accountability, shared medical appointments can also be empowering, Ellen Rothman, interim medical director of the Los Angeles clinic, said, especially when patients see “other people who face the same challenges and struggles.”

The American Academy of Family Physicians has endorsed this means, and Gorman reports that “the visits could increase significantly under the nation’s healthcare overhaul when millions more Americans gain insurance coverage and need to access doctors. Multi-patient appointments are especially valuable in areas with physician shortages.”

Have you considered offering shared medical appointments to your patient population? What are the advantages that you see in having such a program? What are the disadvantages? Do you think your healthcare consumers would embrace such a concept? Would you worry about litigation?

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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