Avoiding ‘Assembly Line’ Medicine

Personalized care is at the heart of this practice

If the last two years have made you rethink how to stay healthy — and how you get your health care — you’re not alone. A growing number of “direct primary care” clinicians who deliver care for a monthly fee and run their own practices — without insurance company involvement — have planted roots throughout the United States.

The direct primary care (DPC) model allows patients expanded access to their providers, who gain a manageable patient roster in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

In the Kalamazoo area, Southwest Michigan Health Matters delivers direct primary care to about 250 patients per year. It’s located at 5708 Venture Court, in Oshtemo Township, north of Michigan Avenue and west of 11th Street.

Founded in February 2019 by board-certified physician assistant Jenny Opdycke and Dr. Marti Peters-Sparling, this family medicine practice seeks to improve the health-care experience for both clinicians and patients.

Opdycke and Peters-Spaulding joined forces after each had profitable jobs in busy medical practices but had grown disillusioned with that model of care.

“The unfortunate truth is that in the standard medical model, there just isn’t the time to spend (with patients) that we’d like to,” says Opdycke. She wanted to provide more holistic care.

“I had already been letting patients know they might reduce their medications for things like anxiety and sleeplessness through lifestyle changes,” says Opdycke. “Most of them were shocked when they got better, and it didn’t matter what age they were. My oldest patient was in her 80s, and we were able to get significant dose reductions in her medications for hypertension, chronic pain and anxiety.”

Before opening Southwest Michigan Health Matters, Peters-Sparling had been seeing 20 patients per day — upwards of 4,000 per year — and it was stressful. “I was experiencing a lot of burnout,” says the mother of two, whose husband is a family nurse practitioner. “I could see that the system wasn’t working for my patients either. They would bring in a list of concerns, and I would only have time to scratch the surface on the first two. People are tired of being run through an assembly line, and physicians are dropping like flies. I think this is a better system.”

Driven by wellness

Opdyke and Peters-Sparling say that with the direct primary care model both doctors and patients escape the limitations of rushed appointments, of not having a relationship with each other, and of a health-care system driven by numbers rather than wellness.

With DPC, clinicians offer significant access to their patients through in-person visits as often as needed and direct communication through text, phone calls and on-screen appointments at no extra cost. Same- or next-day appointments are the norm, with little waiting time to get a question answered.

Peters-Sparling and Opdycke are available around the clock by phone for consultations on urgent matters and do their best to bridge the gap between primary and emergency care.

One grateful patient tells how the practice served her husband even before he was a patient. “I sent a concerned email at 3 a.m. when my husband was experiencing an irregular, elevated heartbeat,” says the patient, who asked that her name not be used. “Dr. Marti called me at 8:30 the next morning and saw him (the patient’s husband) in the office that afternoon. He’s been a fan of hers ever since.”

Registered nurse Annette Crocker, practice manager for Michigan Holistic Health, has been a patient of Opdycke’s since 2021. “The first couple of times we met, just getting to know each other, I opened up about things I didn’t even know I needed to open up about,” Crocker says. “The atmosphere is comfortable, and the access is incredible. It’s so easy to check in about a persistent headache or other concern because I can phone or text and not wait for an appointment to have a simple conversation.”

Membership-based health care

To become a patient of Southwest Michigan Health Matters, people sign up as members. The various membership levels start with an initial $200 fee to cover the first month and a 1.5- to 2-hour new-patient appointment.

The practice attracts patients without insurance and those with high deductible (“catastrophic”) plans.

Chelsie Downs-Hubbarth, business and marketing manager for Southwest Michigan Health Matters, describes the various wellness membership tiers offered: “Our most popular is the ‘resilience membership,’ which provides an added monthly service, be it trauma recovery, emotional processing or a personal wellness service like a private yoga class. Some patients start out at a more involved tier and step down when they are feeling better, while others might start with the integrative health level and step up to more.”

Monthly membership fees for healthy individuals like college students and young adults start below $40. A couples membership is $149 a month, while the monthly cost for a family of four (two adults and two children) is $189. All patients enjoy free and discounted wellness classes and workshops, and the practice offers complimentary 30-minute virtual consultations to learn more about the model.

The detailed case management that the practice offers has a number of advantages, say the practitioners.

“When you spend more time with your patients, you have space for them to ask those lingering questions or share that they have been having thoughts of suicide or harming themselves,” says Opdycke.

Peters-Sparling agrees. “We talk about such delicate, personal things, and it takes time to build trust and for people to be comfortable sharing what’s really bothering them,” she says. “If you don’t have that relationship, it’s hard to get anywhere.”

She says their detailed case management can also mean finding and fixing oversights. “I had a patient who had fallen down some stairs and was in extreme pain,” she recalls. “I had her go to the ER, as it sounded like more than a sprained ankle. The X-ray was normal, but she was still in pain. A week later another X-ray still read normal, but I pulled it up and discovered a fracture in a bone that isn’t normally prone to fracture.”

DPC practices have been around since the 1990s, and there are roughly 1,000 of these practices in the U.S. serving an estimated 500,000 people, according to a 2020 report by the Society of Actuaries.

Additional DPC practitioners in western Michigan include Inspired Health and Wellness in Kalamazoo, Whole Family Direct Care in Marshall, and Violet Skies Family Health in Caledonia.

‘Cradle to grave’

The Southwest Michigan Health Matters clinicians see patients from infants to elders, a benefit that brings particular satisfaction to Opdycke.

“Family medicine is care from the cradle to the grave, and this is the first time I have had the privilege to work with whole families,” says Opdycke, who is gratified for the chance to use such holistic wellness strategies as mindfulness meditation, nutrition counseling and stress reduction. She has a particular interest in trauma recovery, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, and ketogenic and low-carb diets.

“I have always been fascinated with the body’s capacity for healing and the idea that we can use lifestyle modification to heal and maintain health,” says Opdycke. “The mind-body connection is a very real thing.”

Opdycke and Peters-Sparling have a goal to continue expanding their multi-disciplinary wellness center by adding a chiropractor, a naturopath and a nutritionist. They currently share their space with Acupuncture Center of Kalamazoo practitioners Wendy Fritz and Charlie Adams and Helping Hands massage therapist Rebecca Palafox, who offer their services to practice members as well as the public.

“I truly believe direct primary care is the wave of the future, and it gives me such joy to watch people blossom into healing — to reverse years, if not decades, of pain and suffering,” says Opdycke.

While the pandemic affected the practice’s operations, it also created new opportunities, she says. “I think it has catalyzed people to reflect on what is and isn’t working in their lives and may be a stimulus for doing the work of generational healing or trauma integration or reevaluating a toxic job. People are ripe for that.”

Katie Houston

Katie Houston is a Kalamazoo-based writer, communications coach, and marketing consultant.

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Associate Dean, Health Equity and Community Affairs, WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine
The prescription for health is on your plate
Host, children’s mental health podcast, Pediatric Meltdown

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