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What's driving long wait times at the doctor's office?

Breaking down factors behind wait times and exploring alternatives patients are looking into in order to be seen.
What's driving long wait times at the doctor's office?
Posted at 1:29 PM, Oct 01, 2023

If you need to see a doctor, you might find yourself waiting a while.

"We're going to have to find more efficiency in health care," Jeff Decker, President of Physician Solutions at AMN Healthcare, said.

U.S. wait times for physician appointments are on the rise, leaving patients frustrated and doctors overwhelmed. They're proving to be especially lengthy for folks looking to schedule an appointment as a new patient. So, how long does it take to see a doctor?

According to a 2022 AMN Healthcare and Merritt Hawkins survey of physician offices in 15 major metropolitan areas, the average wait time for an appointment was 26 days, a 24 percent jump from 2004, when it was 20.9 days.

The survey also documented jumps in average wait times for many specialties: obstetrics and gynecology (31.4 days), dermatology (34.5 days), and cardiology (26.6 days). Interestingly, the average wait time to see a family medicine physician dropped to 20.6 days, marking a 30 percent decline in wait time from 2017 at 29.3 days.

"I think one of the things that was most alarming to me was around the OB side of it. Right. So, women's health and really making sure that you could get in to see an OB physician in a timely fashion," Decker said.

Decker says there are a number of factors driving these wait times, including physician burnout, physician retirements, demographic shifts, and entry hurdles to working in the industry. As a result, a shift is occurring in how people choose to access healthcare.

"There's a shift in what expectations are for how people are managing their care today, and it is toward more expediency," Decker said.

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Many are opting to go to "retail clinics" rather than wait weeks for an appointment. "Retail clinics are a type of walk-in clinic that can be found in many of your local drugstores and some big box retailers.

"I think you find that whatever is the most expedient is, is what people are driving to and why. You also see the big box stores; for example, in retail, they have found that health care is that next great bastion," Decker said.

According to Definitive Healthcare, "over the last five years, the use of retail clinics has grown more than urgent care centers, emergency rooms, and primary care offices."

As of March 2023, there are believed to be roughly 1,800 active "retail clinics" across the country. And the data shows they are being put to use. Definitive Healthcare notes that "between 2017 and 2022, retail clinic claims volumes grew a whopping 200%." 

But even if you do go that route, "call your doctor's office anyway. Even with the longer wait times," Dr. Tochi Iroku-Malize, President of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said.

Dr. Iroku-Malize says that you shouldn't let wait times deter you from trying to connect with primary physicians, as they are the ones with the most insight into your health history.

"We provide that continuity of care. So we know your medical history. We know what's going on in your family, the social environment in which you live. All the other factors that are impacting your health," Iroku-Malize said.

She says many physicians are working hard to find creative ways to address your health questions and concerns.

"We are using a lot of new tools in our toolbox in order to see you. So for those visits where we don't need to do hands-on, we can do telemedicine visits," Iroku-Malize said.

It remains to be seen if these technologies and retail options curb how long it takes to see a doctor, but for the time being, those looking for a traditional doctor's visit should pack their patience.

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