Our Health

The future of healthcare

For This Doctor, Business As Usual Is Over

He hopes to change the system from the outside in.

Dr. Rob Lamberts cares for a living. Make no mistake, he's a bona-fide primary care physician, but his out-of-the-box health care practice is turning heads because he really does care about his patients. He thrives off the joy of connecting with and helping them.

That's a refreshingly rebellious attitude for a doctor to have these days given the accelerated pace of the current health care model - and it's not the only way his practice stands out as an anomaly.

Lamberts, also known as Dr. Rob, wants to keep people away from health care. "As strange as that may sound," he says, "the goal of most people is to spend less time dealing with their health, not more," and he's looking for ways to do that.

He's not a fan of unnecessary tests, of patients being put on medications that don't help, or of going to the ER when people don't need to. Lamberts speaks openly about the fact that he'll use whatever means he can — texting, phone, or house calls — "to keep people as people, not as health care consumers."

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How does this clinical minimalism work within the same old, same old pressures of the current system? It doesn't. Dr. Lamberts often runs behind schedule because he likes to talk to people, to joke with them, to ask questions. He gives his patients his full attention and they love it. If they have to wait a little longer while he's caring for other patients they know it's worth it. He won't cheat them out of the time they need.

Not everyone’s caught this über patient-centered vision. Some, including a few colleagues, see Lamberts as an outlier. To them, his close personal connection to patients (called direct care) is unrealistic as a business model. Even he admits the business future is a little scary. He figures he needs to cap his practice at no more than 1,000 patients (one-forth its former size) in order to provide the quality care he feels is essential. He knows this isn't a path to riches, but that's not really his goal in life. Still, Lamberts does want to be able to cover expenses such as his kid's college tuition.

Business uncertainty aside, he's on fire about this new practice and hopes it will not only better serve his patients but become a better model for the whole health care system, which he feels functions in a way that penalizes doctors for caring. That system, he feels, has to change.

What transformed Lamberts into a change-agent? Look a little closer and it becomes clearer what's going on in his heart as well as his head. It's common sense and a spiritual sense. He explained: "After very difficult deliberation, long discussions with my family and the other doctors in my practice, and lots of praying, it became clear that I needed to make the change."

Yes, he takes praying seriously. His Christian faith is central to everything he does, although not in what he says to patients, but in how he acts. "My faith is very much one of action, not of words," he told me. "I'd rather people see Christ in me than hear me talk about him."

When you look at what Lambert does in his practice as well as what he has experienced from it, you see that what's taking place has been as healing for him as it has for his patients. "It's actually helped me through some very dark times in my life, knowing that whatever my weaknesses or distresses I could make a difference in others' lives."

So far, his Georgia-based practice is doing just that. He even invited his patients to recommend locations for his new office (in the Augusta vicinity) that would be convenient to them. When was the last time you heard of a doctor doing that?

Does this care-first approach offer a hint as to the future of health care? It's too early to tell if a system so out-of-sync with Lamberts' priorities can be transformed in this way. Old business models are slow to change. Still he's convinced there's a better system to be had.

If Lamberts' fervent desire to make things better for his patients keeps expanding, and people continue to feel well-served by a genuine neighbor-loving attitude, open communication, professional skills, deeply-felt faith and boundless care, we may indeed be seeing the makings of a better system emerging.

Russ Gerber spent many years in news programming, most notably with the Christian Science Monitor. He is passionate about the health care debate.

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