Group Visits: A New Channel for Reps?

Edition: September 2013 - Vol 21 Number 09
Article#: 4316
Author: Laurie Morgan, Capko & Company

An OB/GYN practice we worked with recently had a challenging problem. For many years, they offered newly pregnant patients an open-ended consultation with one of the RNs on their staff – an opportunity these nervous and excited patients valued. However, with overall reimbursement for maternity dropping, and no revenue associated with these consultations, they were becoming too expensive to support. Nonetheless, the practice was nervous about dropping a popular service – especially since it also functioned as a great marketing tool. Their patients shared their delight with the consultations with other new moms-to-be who were looking for an obstetrician, and that led to a significant number of new patient referrals.

Our suggestion was to shift the maternity consultations to group visits. The nurse could meet with as many as five or six patients at one time instead of just one – without any reduction in the information shared during the consult. Even better, patients seemed to love sharing experiences among themselves informally – so we believed it was likely that patients would value an extended group visit format even more than the one-on-one approach.

Creatively structured group visits (also known as shared medical appointments) can solve access problems for practices – and for the vendors who sell to and through them. For example, we recently recommended that a vendor of an expensive and complex genetic test consider working with physicians to help them set up group visits to give patients more time to understand the pros and cons of taking the test – and to gain support from other patients considering the same question.

I got my first glimpse of the potential for group visits to both improve patient access to care and expose patients to new treatments well over a decade ago, when I sought help for a repetitive strain injury through my HMO. After visiting with my primary care doc for a diagnosis, I was referred for a series of group sessions with a physical therapist. These sessions were valuable to patients in numerous ways – besides the opportunity to commiserate; we learned first-hand about how different work settings (and ergonomic shortcomings) caused repetitive strain. As a group, we also learned how to use a number of products to support our therapy – and had the opportunity to buy those products before we left, so we could apply what we learned at home.

Through our consulting work, we’ve witnessed the group visit model being effective in some unexpected ways. For example, group visits have become popular as an efficient way to give diabetics more time with healthcare providers. (This can be an effective venue for introducing and monitoring new devices used by diabetics as well.) But, one of the more surprising outcomes emerging from the increasing use of group visits is that patients also seem to show more improvement in self-management compared to patients who only see their providers one-on-one, as noted by several studies, such as one by The Journal of Nurse Practitioners and another by the AMGA.

With healthcare costs and innovative models getting more media attention than ever before, group visits are even having a mainstream media moment: publications like The Wall Street Journal and Time have recently done feature stories (May 30, 2012 and August 7, 2013, respectively) describing the emergence of the group visit model, and how it is increasingly embraced by health plans and physicians alike. As the shared medical model gains acceptance, and more practices introduce shared visit programs, vendors may find the trend presents an attractive opportunity to serve clients by helping them build a group program around their products – opening up a new sales channel in the process.