NYT: Why Americans are waiting to see their doctors

Rosenthal: Long wait times have become 'the norm'

Although many observers believe that U.S. residents can access care quickly, there is "emerging evidence" that long wait times for appointments with physicians are "the norm," Elisabeth Rosenthal writes in the New York Times.

The waiting game

For example, a Commonwealth Fund study from last year surveyed 2,002 U.S. adults to compare wait times for health care in the U.S. with those in 10 other countries. The study found that 26% of U.S. residents waited six days or more for an appointment when they were "sick or needed care," worse than eight of the other countries.

"We were smug and we had the impression that the United States had no wait times—but it turns out that's not true," says Commonwealth researcher Robin Osborn, adding "It's the primary care where we're really behind, with many people waiting six days or more" for an appointment when they stated they were "sick or needed care."

In addition, a survey last year by physician staffing company Merritt Hawkins found that wait times varied significantly by location and specialty.

For example, patients waited:

  • 66 days to receive a physical in Boston;
  • 32 days to have a heart evaluation by a cardiologist in Washington state; and
  • 29 days across the U.S. to receive a skin exam from a dermatologist.

Why the long waits?

According to the analysis, one reason for the longer waits in the United States might be that health care systems in other countries have medical and financial incentives to reduce wait times and provide timely preventive care, which can help reduce long-term costs.

Meanwhile, wait times for appointments and procedures are public in many other countries, but not in the United States—putting less pressure on U.S. physicians to reduce wait times.

Why patient access is a CEO issue

How to address the issue

Other countries have taken steps to reduce their wait times, such as assigning more providers to higher need areas, developing scheduling systems to prioritize certain appointments, or requiring at least one medical office in a particular area to be open on nights and weekends so patients do not have to go to the ED.

Rosenthal writes that the United States might reduce its wait times by allowing nurses and physician assistants to administer more care.

How to achieving top-of-license nursing practice

Incentivizing more medical students to go into primary care could also reduce wait times, according to Rosenthal (Rosenthal, New York Times, 7/5).

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