The doctor will see you (and you and you) now
Susan Sprada has a heart condition, lower back issues and psoriasis — a host of medical issues that can be tough to deal with alone. So why should she? Sprada was initially a little nervous about the idea of a group medical visit when Dr. Linda Johnson, her doctor at Southwest Medical, first suggested it. Now Sprada says she’s glad she did.
“When you’re in a group session, you’re finding out about stuff you never even thought of,” she says. “In one of my appointments, someone was talking about a bladder sling. That can help me because I have bladder issues. I would’ve never heard of it if I hadn’t gone to that group meeting.”
Sprada is not alone — and we don’t just mean when she’s at the doctor’s office. Shared medical appointments, group visits with 10 to 15 people, are growing in popularity, and for some patients, they’re a more satisfying way to see the doctor, bringing in crowd-sourced wisdom, and a sense of emotional support that comes from shared experience. Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of medical practices across the country offering group visits doubled, from 6 percent to 13 percent of doctor visits. Southwest Medical Associates launched its shared medical appointments program in Nevada last summer.
If you’re imagining a room full of people standing around in their underwear, don’t worry: Physical examinations are conducted privately, in a separate room. Instead, patients talk openly about their health conditions. Think of it as a combination of group therapy and a wellness seminar. Typically lasting 90 minutes, group sessions allow patients to ask questions, share experiences and learn from each other.
“A 90-minute span is long enough that patients don’t feel rushed,” says Dr. Evangelia Papageorge, a physician at Southwest Medical, “but it’s not so long that it affects other activities.”
During the meetings, a registered nurse acts as a facilitator to keep the conversation moving forward, and a medical transcriptionist takes notes, which allows the doctor to focus exclusively on the patients. “When I answer one patient’s questions,” Papageorge explains, “it often triggers the other patients to ask additional questions that may not have occurred to them.”
What about baring your soul — not to mention your medical history — in front of people you’ve just met? While some patients are understandably reluctant, those who try it seem to like it. “The person that has come in for their back will also get to hear what I say to the person who has blood-pressure issues,” says Papageorge. “The person that came in for back pain today may have blood-pressure problems tomorrow, and now he’s learned about that.” To ensure privacy, each participant signs a waiver promising not to talk about the other patients’ health histories outside of the visit. At the end of the session, each receives a personalized action plan, which may include referrals or prescriptions.
Las Vegan Rajesh Sharma, a patient of Papageorge’s, is originally from India. He wasn’t thrown by the idea of seeing her along with several other people. “In India, everything is shared,” he says. “I had swelling of my legs because of fluid retention. The doctor told me to get compression socks. I got them and told of my experience in the group. And the doctor told another patient that compression socks could help her.”
Group appointments are covered just like individual appointments by most health insurance plans. And they may save money in the long run: Learning about ways to prevent and treat diseases can help patients avoid expensive treatments down the road. While they’re not a replacement for one-on-one doctor exams, group sessions offer a chance to bond with other patients and reinforce the importance of preventative health care.
“As a country, we’re excellent at providing acute medical care, but we aren’t the best at maintenance,” says Papageorge. “This is another system in place to improve our health maintenance.”