Yesterday's Boston Globe had a fascinating article about shared medical appointments at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates (HVMA), the group I practiced with for 32 years before retiring from clinical practice last year.
As implemented at HVMA and the Cleveland Clinic, shared medical appointments are 90 minute visits with one's own physician along with perhaps 8 - 10 other patients (see here for HVMA and here for the Cleveland Clinic). In shared appointments physicians do what they would do in a typical 15 minute visit - listen to the patient's story, ask questions, do the necessary physical examination, order tests and prescribe medications. (The intimate components of the physical exam are done outside of the group.)
The literature about shared appointments emphasizes productivity gains, improvement in access, and patient and physician satisfaction with the format. But from historical research I did on an earlier version of the shared appointment and my own experience with a related format in psychiatry, I believe there is an ethical or even spiritual dimension as well.
In 1905 Dr. Joseph Hersey Pratt, then at the Massachusetts General Hospital and later at the New England Medical Center, began to hold what he called the "tuberculosis class" at the Emmanuel Church in Boston. Pratt thought of the class as an efficient way of encouraging patients to follow a rigidly defined regimen of out-of-doors rest, the only treatment for TB at the time. Patients were directed to spend day and night in tents erected on the roofs and balconies of Boston tenements. A "friendly visitor," the prototype of the medical social worker - made regular visits to the home to provide supervision and support, and to assist the family in making the needed practical arrangements. A subsidy provided by Dr. Elwood Worcester, rector of the Emmanuel Church, paid the salary of the friendly visitor and aided in purchasing tents, blankets and other necessities. Pratt ran the class for 18 years. His results with poor patients from Boston appeared to be similar to the results achieved at the best sanataria.
In 1975 I had the privilige of starting an outpatient program for patients with chronic mental illness at the Harvard Community Health Plan (which later became Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates). The medical literature suggested that group-based programs were as effective as individual appointments (see here), so with the same productivity rationale we established a "continuing care group." The group, staffed by a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse met weekly, with 5 - 20 patients attending. We met for 90 minutes and discussed medications, managing symptoms, and life.
The group format was indeed efficient. But over time I observed that for many of the patients, as well as for myself, it was more than that. A closeness and sense of shared humanity gradually emerged. It helped patients see themselves as people with illnesses, not as "schizophrenics" and "manic depressives." People were able to help and support each other. Although I had to work hard at the meetings I found the rich human exchange exhilarating and deeply rewarding. It was a thoroughly secular exchange, but I believe a cultural anthropologist would have seen the group as having many elements in common with religious settings.
When I went to the Harvard Vanguard website I saw that my own primary care physician is among those who are offering shared medical appointments. I'm happiest when I have no need to see a health professional, but when I do I look forward to experiencing the format from the patient's perspective!
(The Boston Globe article gives access to a short video clip of a shared medical appointment, with background comments by Dr. Gene Lindsey, who'se leading the shared appointment. I encourage readers to make a two minute investment to watch the video - it's very informative.)