March 24, 2019
Doctor Appointment Delays on the Rise
Health News

Doctor Appointment Delays on the Rise

by Berkeley Wellness  

It’s not your imagination: It takes longer to get an initial non-emergency doctor’s appointment these days, at least in some places in the U.S. and for some types of physicians, according to a survey of 1,400 randomly selected doctors' offices in 15 major urban areas, covering five medical specialties (family medicine, cardiology, dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology, and orthopedic surgery).

To conduct the survey, appointments were made by researchers at Merritt Hawkins, a national health care consulting firm, for non-emergency medical conditions. Also sampled, for the first time, were 494 physician offices in 15 mid-sized metropolitan areas.

The average wait time rose in major cities by 30 percent since 2014, from 18.5 days to 24 days in 2017, with Boston having the longest lag (52 days) and Dallas the shortest (15). Among mid-sized cities, the wait time was even longer: 32 days, on average, with Yakima, Washington having the longest (49 days) and Billings, Montana the shortest (11).

New patient appointments also varied by specialty, with dermatology having the longest wait overall for large metro areas (32 days) and family medicine having the longest wait in mid-sized markets (54 days).

Among the possible reasons, the authors speculate that the appointment delays could be driven, at least in part, by an aging population (which makes greater use of health care services) and, bittersweetly, by the Affordable Care Act, which extended health coverage to more than 20 million previously uninsured Americans, coupled with an ongoing doctor shortage. Health care reform in Massachusetts in 2006, which provided near-universal insurance coverage to its residents, may, among other factors, be responsible for the longer wait times in Boston.

The survey had some caveats, including that it did not take into account that appointments may open up sooner than originally scheduled and that there may be greater demands for appointments at certain times of the year. And it didn’t include appointments that may be made for more urgent medical issues. Still, it’s thought that “the survey reflects in general what patients would encounter at a given time when attempting to schedule physician appointments.”

As the health care system continues to evolve, "ways will need to be found to ensure access to physicians, through increases in the number of medical residency positions available nationwide, through the use of innovative staffing models that redistribute some of the work previously handled by physicians to other clinicians, through equitable payments to physicians, through the use of online and mobile technology, and through other methods,” the authors of the report concluded.

For the full results, go to Merritt Hawkins 2017 Survey of Physician Appointment Wait Times.