Getting an appointment with a doctor shouldn’t be a problem.
As long as you can wait three weeks or even a little longer.
A new survey concluded that the wait time to get into see a physician has been slowly ticking upward the past decade, reaching an all-time high of 24 days this year.
Experts interviewed by Healthline said there are a number of reasons for the increase.
Among them are a shortage of physicians, an increase in the number of people with health insurance, and the extra time burden on doctors to deal with electronic medical records.
The ramifications are also varied.
The experts said these include people skipping preventative medicine appointments and an increase in the number of patients at urgent care centers.
Crunching the numbers
The 2017 Survey of Physician Appointment Wait Times was conducted by Merritt Hawkins, a healthcare consulting company.
The Merritt Hawkins researchers received responses from 1,414 physicians in 15 metropolitan areas in the United States.
The doctors were from five medical specialties: family medicine, cardiology, dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology, and orthopedic surgery.
Researchers said the survey showed that the wait time for a new patient-physician appointment has risen to an average of 24 days.
That compares with 18 days in 2014, 20 days in 2009, and 21 days in 2004.
Merritt Hawkins also did a similar survey in 15 midsize regions with populations from 90,000 to 140,000, and found wait times a little longer.
The average wait time in those more rural areas was 32 days. That’s 33 percent higher than metro regions.
“Finding a physician who can see you today, or three weeks from today, can be a challenge, even in large urban areas where there is a relatively robust supply of doctors,” Mark Smith, president of Merritt Hawkins, said in a press release. “The challenge becomes even more difficult in smaller communities that have fewer physicians per population.”
The researchers also queried doctors on Medicare and Medicaid.
In metro areas, they found that 85 percent accept Medicare patients and 53 percent accept patients covered by Medicaid.
In midsize regions, 81 percent of doctors accept Medicare patients, while 60 percent accept Medicaid patients.
Why wait times are increasing
One of the main reasons for the increase in wait times is the simple law of supply and demand.
Kurt Mosley, vice president of strategic alliances for Merritt Hawkins, said the current and pending shortage of doctors is a prime cause of the increase.
He noted this is particularly true in Boston, which had the highest average wait time with 52 days.
“The fact of the matter is we simply don’t have enough doctors,” Mosley told Healthline.
Dr. Mott Blair, a family physician in North Carolina, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said the increase in the number of patients is also exacerbating the problem.
He told Healthline that more people have health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the uptick in the economy the past few years.
That is creating higher demand at doctors’ offices.
“As the economy has turned around, we have been seeing a lot more people who want care,” Blair said.
Mosley added that the growth in the number of people over the age of 55 is also increasing demand.
Both experts agreed that the introduction of electronic health records is also limiting the time doctors can spend with patients.
In another survey done last year by Merritt Hawkins, researchers discovered that 33 percent of doctors felt electronic records reduced the quality of care they give to patients.
In addition, 55 percent said the electronic records reduced efficiency, and 59 percent said they reduced patient interaction.
The American Medical Association (AMA) found similar percentages in a survey it did last fall.
The results prompted the AMA to issue a statement in the Annals of Internal Medicine noting that for every hour physicians were spending with patients, they were spending two hours on electronic records and other administrative tasks.
Blair said all of these factors are producing a simple result.
“The number of patients I see during the day is decreasing,” he said.
The ramifications of longer waits
The fallout from longer wait times is also varied.
The experts said people who have to wait several weeks to see a doctor might just skip routine or preventative medicine appointments.
That can lead to consequences down the road.
People can develop more serious ailments from ignoring symptoms or postponing healthcare.
“Healthcare delayed is healthcare denied,” said Mosley.
The other thing people do is make an appointment at an urgent care center or other medical facility when they can’t see their own doctor.
Blair said that’s fine if the patient is in pain or has a serious health issue. But, he said, if a person is going to a facility and seeing a different doctor each time for routine appointments they can miss out on the expertise a family doctor might contribute over a series of visits.
“I think this is a real danger,” he said. “It breaks down the continuity of care.”