The doctor will see you (and you, and you and you)

SEATTLE - Would you tell a group of strangers about your health concerns? Patients in our area are talking about their ailments in group doctor visits and claiming they learn more from each other than they do in private exams with a doctor.

These voluntary groups, which are led by a medical professional and often covered by insurance, are popping up across the country. They give members a chance to bring up questions and concerns while allowing providers to expand medical services without increasing patient cost.

At Seattle Children's Odessa Brown Clinic, nurse practitioner Gabrielle Seibel leads group visits with patients who have sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder. She has brought hematologists, nutritionists, yoga instructors and legal experts to group sessions.

"It's extremely cost effective," Seibel said. "We can bring in resources and things we can't afford to do in one-on-one visits."

With more time available and plenty of patient experiences to draw on, some patients say they learn more in group session than they do in private doctor visits.

At the UW Neighborhood Kent/Des Moines Clinic nurse Carol Duval leads an asthma group visit once a month. She teaches patients how asthma affects the body; how to use an inhaler; and which triggers can lead to an asthma attack.

"You can only talk about so many things at a doctor's visit," Duval said. "The provider could never address all the things we talk about in group."

Seattle resident Menelik Yohannes said his daughter Hibist has had fewer asthma attacks since they started attending the group.

"We hear from families about foods that trigger asthma and how to keep the air clean," Yohannes said. "Every time we learn something new that we never expect."

But, Seibel said the benefits of group visits are not just educational, they're emotional. The Odessa Clinic started offering group visits after observing them in Ghana. There, doctors offered infant exams to several mothers together. Seibel said she was impressed by the support offered between the women. She felt group visits could create communities for children with chronic illnesses.

"Kids with sickle cell experience a lot of pain," Seibel said. "It's really overwhelming and can cause a lot of social isolation. But in group the kids get to know each other and build relationships."

Some group visit participants are asked to sign consent forms promising they will not discuss group conversations outside the sessions. Still, this does not promise the same confidentiality that patients get in a private doctor visit.

Despite that, Dr. Rebecca Over, who leads group visits with diabetes patients at Pacific Medical Center, said patients may be more likely to talk about their health in a group than in private visits with a doctor.

"Sometimes they're more comfortable talking about specific issues with their peers than with a doctor they feel like may be judging them," Over said.

After taking group diabetes classes, Over said her patients typically lower their blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Seibel said children who grow up with group visits tend to have fewer hospitalizations or emergency room visits. But, she added the biggest difference she sees among patients who attend group visits is their growing comfort in the doctor's office and knowledge of the health care system.

"If your child sees another child getting an exam it's not so scary," Seibel said. "We have small children running in to have their ears examined! I believe that the sense of support and community improve levels of depression and well-being."