Pulse: Chatter: Medicine: The Doctor Is In (The Money)

That Barbara Shonberg is a very good doctor seems beyond question. The 54-year-old Bucks County internist boasts degrees from Princeton, Penn and the University of Chicago, and has been anointed by none other than this very glossy as one of the area’s Top Docs. Which is why she apparently felt justified recently in sending her 2,000 patients a letter informing them they’d need to pay $1,500 annually to remain in her care.

Shonberg and a partner, Arnold Goldstein, have hopped the wave of “concierge” medicine sweeping the nation, joining a network of more than 150 so-called MDVIP doctors across the country. (Jon Yardney in Wayne is another.) MDVIP enables “exceptional doctors” — evidently determined in large part by rankings in city magazines — to slash their patient loads and provide “premium” care to fewer folks. In exchange for the $1,500 annual fee — that’s on top of any deductibles and regardless of insurance ­coverage — patients get “­executive-style” exams, same- or next-day appointments, access to other MDVIPs, even a take-along CD containing all their medical records. While on its face it sounds hideous, an MDVIP flak says the fee, payable in installments of $125 monthly, is, in the scheme of things, money well spent. “I just had a big sushi lunch that was $60,” spokeswoman Nancy Udell says on her cell phone from Boca Raton. “It depends on how you value your health.”

Not surprisingly, some of Shonberg’s patients were, well, sickened at the news. One who attended a meeting Shonberg and Goldstein hosted to explain MDVIP says the two used “scare tactics” to frighten “the mostly Medicare set”; ultimately, the atmosphere turned into “the last scene of Frankenstein.” “She went on and on about how her father was a country doctor and how she wanted to go back to that kind of personal medicine,” says the patient, who is now looking for a new doctor. “I wanted to say, ‘Country doctors used to take chickens instead of money.’”

Reached after she’d just finished a routine day ­seeing 25 patients, Shonberg says the decision was born of frustration with a “system that is clearly broken.” (She expects her load to drop to eight to 10 patients a day, though her personal income will remain roughly the same.) “My patients are getting older, they’re developing more problems, more medical conditions, and seeing 25 to 30 patients a day doesn’t leave enough time to address all the aspects of medical care that I want to address,” Shonberg says. “There are really very few ways to restrict one’s practice and still be able to keep your doors open. So I can take care of 600 patients or nobody.”

Or perhaps just 300 with deep pockets. Come in: The doctor will see you now.