No Skin in the Game - A Private Health System for the Very Rich

We have noted occasional hints that the very rich may have a separate health care system which may shield them from the vicissitudes of our dysfunctional health care system. A broader hint came in an interview in the Wall Street Journal.

The Company

 The subject of the interview was Leslie Michelson, the CEO of Private Health Management.  The activities of the company were defined somewhat vaguely,
an ultra high-end company that borrows from concierge medicine, managed care, applied-sciences research and information technology while fitting into no neat category. The best analogue might be the investment and tax specialists that the affluent employ to run their finances; Mr. Michelson does the same for their health care. 'Like private wealth management, just far more important,' he quips in his modern Beverly Hills offices, all green glass and steel, white walls, white floors.

The Clientele

The company manages health care for a select clientele:
Private Health caters to 'high net worth individuals' and to businesses that retain its services for their executives as a benefit. Mr. Michelson says he serves between 12,000 and 15,000 clients, 'principally in private equity, hedge funds, professional and financial services firms.'
Note that the clientele seem to come mainly from the ranks of top executives of financial firms, probably some of the richest of the rich in the US.

Rapid Response Team for Acute Illness

Private Health Management's most distinctive service is the rapid response team it can "parachute in" to provide care for an acute illness,
whenever one of its patients has a medical emergency or complex condition, say, a traumatic brain injury or newly diagnosed cancer. A personal-care team parachutes in, led by a clinician employed by the company, and compiles a brief on the patient. They centralize and digitize the patient's medical records, usually dog-eared paper piles that can run to thousands of pages. Research scientists immerse themselves in the latest findings and treatment regimens for the particular condition involved.
Tests are double-checked—biopsy tissues are sent to an outside pathologist, MRIs to another radiologist. For an era of targeted therapies, Private Health runs a full battery of molecular diagnostics 'to sequence the entire three billion base pairs of somebody's DNA in a couple of hours,' Mr. Michelson marvels.
The goal is to ensure an accurate diagnosis and lay out all the treatment options. Private Health functions as a kind of running, independent second opinion.
Physician Network

In addition, Private Health Management provides access to a network of ostensibly the very best physicians,
Mr. Michelson built a series of proprietary algorithms to distinguish 'the few who are the very best' from 'the many who are very good,' based on 'the factors that predict excellence.' For example, the premier caregivers for metastatic cancer are usually academic researchers on the cutting edge, not general oncologists. The best orthopedic surgeons perform many procedures as they master the clinical learning curve, ideally for a single injury.
His referral database includes 2,200 specialists across 160 medical fields, 'reified into far finer groupings of disease than is standard practice.' He says that 'the world becomes so much clearer when you are able to identify the physician with the deepest and narrowest expertise in exactly what you need.'
Mr. Michelson says doctors like to belong to his informal network because they're 'interested in excellence and what we stand for.'
However, next,
 He adds, with more than a little euphemism, 'In a world in which 98% of the conversations are about cost containment, it's a joy for them to have somebody who's focused on enhancing quality only.' No doubt true, though it probably doesn't hurt that providers also like to have a relationship with his client base, the sort of people who become university patrons or donate a hospital wing.
This raises the question of whether doctors in his network may exhibit some greed along with their putative excellence.

Questions Begged About How it Works

The article actually devoted more space to Mr Michelson rationalizing his business as part of his overall interest in reforming health care than to discussion of how it works and what its implications are.  The short description of the processes above actually raised more questions about how the Private Health System works than it answered.  Some examples are: how could an optimal rapid response team be quickly mobilized given that the nature of acute illnesses may not be immediately apparent?  How would such a team interact within a hospital setting, or does the company have its own parallel hospital system?  What about the rest of medicine and health care outside of acute and intensive care, particularly primary care and management of chronic disease?  How does the referral data base function, and how would a classification that seems focused on the "narrowest expertise" cope with patients with multiple common illnesses or patients with undefined or undiagnosed problems?  These begged questions suggest there may actually be much more to the Private Health Management system than was discussed in the article.

Perhaps instead the care provided by Private Health Management might not actually result in better outcomes for its patients.  Consider some other questions: given how hard it is to assess physician performance and measure quality of care, how can Private Health Management be assured that its physicians are really the best of the best?  Given the apparent financial incentives for participating in the system, would the doctors who most appreciate these incentives be likely to provide the best care?  Would the apparent bias of the system toward high technology and super specialized care, would the system over-treat most of its patients? 

Summary and Implications

Nonetheless, the article provides more evidence that the US has a secretive parallel health care system for the very rich.  The most important implication is that such a system could protect the very rich from the access problems and bureaucratic annoyances that plague ordinary patients in larger dysfunctional health care system.  By thus having "no skin in the game," those among the very rich who are not themselves directly involved with health care would have little reason to care or want to do anything about the problems besetting the larger health care system.  Since the very rich have become increasingly politically powerful, the absence of such interest or motivation for change among them would make true health care reform much more difficult. 

If there is a parallel health care system for the very rich, its real effects on health and health care are unknown.  As best as I can tell, the very concept is almost entirely anechoic except for our very limited discussions on Health Care Renewal.  The subject cries out for investigative reporting, and consideration by health care policy, research, and ethics experts.