SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — The city’s first Black-owned, membership-based direct primary care practice has opened its doors.

Family medicine physician Dr. Jamal Lawrence founded Harvest Health MD, which began offering services to the community from its Tibet Avenue office on March 1. 

Lawrence says a lack of one-on-one time spent with his patients led him to shift away from practicing medicine the traditional way.

“A lot of the documentation and administrative burden that comes with being a physician, you know, you see a patient for a certain amount of time,” Lawrence told WSAV NOW.

“Immediately after that, you’re sitting there writing notes on the computer for hours on end,” he said, adding that the doctor-patient relationship is the hallmark of practicing medicine.

Lawrence, who hails from New York and was medically trained in Savannah, says those extra moments spent with patients could impact whether they’re correctly diagnosed.

“I remember one particular lady who had had multiple emergency room visits,” Lawrence recalled.

He says upon further investigation, he realized her complaint wasn’t the exact cause of her illness.

“A 15-minute visit turned into about 45 minutes, and we were able to uncover what the actual issue was, start the appropriate medication and get her the right resources, and she came back and was better,” Lawrence said.

“Those are the kinds of things that doctors in a traditional setting don’t necessarily have the time to do — it’s not that they don’t want to do it or that they can’t do it,” he said. “That is one example of why I wanted to do something a little different.”

The medical expert says Harvest Health MD will offer full-scope primary care along with health and wellness services to Savannah’s diverse community.

He wants to take a holistic, lifestyle-based approach to medicine.

“Lifestyle medicine looks at behaviors and behavior modification to also impact your health and not just the medical aspects,” Lawrence said.

 “I use my own lifestyle and the things that I do on a day-to-day [basis] to assist patients in making positive changes,” he said, adding, “That goes from a plant-based, whole-food diet to getting the appropriate amount of recommended exercise, to stress mitigation, sleep as well as goal-setting and mindset reframing.” 

Explaining how the direct primary care medical model works, Lawrence says it’s “old-school medicine with a new-school twist.” His patients directly pay Lawrence a monthly membership fee in exchange for primary care services. 

“With that monthly membership fee, we do not take any insurance, so all of that time and manpower used to run a traditional practice, you essentially eliminate that waste,” Lawrence said, adding that his patients can easily reach him in a number of ways.

“They have access to me through email, telephone, text message and in some cases, telehealth visits,” he said.

Many office-based procedures are included in the membership fee, according to Lawrence. “We’re able to save them a lot of money when it comes to labs, imaging and medications by working with wholesale indirect pharmacies on their behalf,” he said.

Compared to traditional doctor’s offices where waiting rooms may be crammed with patients waiting to spend 15 minutes with a doctor, Lawrence says he only sees one patient at a time.

“With me, the most [patients] you’ll have booked in an hour is two,” he said, adding, “because of that, we have a significantly lower patient panel, which allows us to spend that time with patients.”

Last year, Lawrence became one of three local entrepreneurs to win SCORE’s BizPitch Savannah competition, which he says helped jumpstart his new practice.

“It allowed me to be introduced to a lot of key people in the community that align with the goals and the trajectory that I am on and trying to accomplish in terms of effecting change here in the Savannah community,” he said.

As the first Black doctor to open a membership-based, direct primary care office locally, Lawrence says he aims to drive improvements in minority health.

“Patients really connect with people who look like them as anybody does, in general,” Lawrence said.

He noted that minority communities tend to face a lot of health care disparities within the system.

“[I’m] hoping to bridge that gap with patients, and provide the resources and tools that allow them to look at things a little bit differently to have a fuller understanding of their health and to help navigate the health care system better,” he said.