The Long Wait to See a Doctor


Americans are already experiencing long waits to get doctor’s appointments, and experts say the delays are bound to get worse when millions of previously uninsured Americans get health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. That is the sobering news from a new survey of wait times conducted by Merritt Hawkins, a physician staffing firm, which polled some 1,400 medical offices in 15 large metropolitan areas across the country.

The survey, conducted over a five-month period last year, assessed how long it would take a new patient to get an appointment for non-emergency care in five different medical specialties: cardiology, dermatology, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedic surgery and family practice. Boston had the longest average wait times — 45 days across all specialties, well above the national average of 19 days. The findings in this survey showed little change across all specialties from two previous surveys in 2009 and 2004. Long waits have apparently become the norm in many metropolitan areas.

The findings are consistent with an international survey of 11 industrialized countries last year by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that analyzes health care issues. The findings punctured the illusion that our high-priced health care system, relying on private doctors, provides faster service than the national health systems in other advanced countries. When Americans got sick, 26 percent had to wait six days or longer for an appointment, better only than Canada and Norway but much worse than other countries with national health systems like Britain and the Netherlands. Patients in Britain and Switzerland also reported shorter waits to see a specialist than patients in the United States.

Experts suggest several ways to reduce wait times, like increasing primary care doctors, allowing nurses and physicians’ assistants to provide more care and opening more primary care clinics. The critical ingredient is to make reduction of wait times a political issue, as happened in Britain and is now happening in American veterans’ hospitals in the wake of a scandal involving falsified records to hide long wait times.

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