Juan Carlos Llorca / AP
Some Veterans Affairs facilities in Texas like this one have among the longest wait-times in the nation for those trying to see a doctor for the first time, according to federal data. But it's not just veterans who can face long waits for doctors.
Veterans aren't the only ones who can find it tough to get a quick appointment with a new doctor.
There are wide variations in wait times, depending on where you live and what kind of care you're seeking.
Need routine primary care? The average wait to see a family physician for the first time ranged from 66 days in Boston to just five days in Dallas, according to a survey in 15 large cities by health care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins.
And that's before the new federal health care law opened the way for millions of newly insured people to start looking for a doctor.
"To say it's an easy solution to the VA problem — we'll just have them get care in the community — overestimates the capacity the community has to absorb these folks," said Dr. Yul Ejnes of the American College of Physicians.
OUTSIDE VA, WHAT'S THE WAIT?
There are no national statistics. But Merritt Hawkins' survey, released earlier this year, illustrates there's variation around the country when it comes to choosing a new physician. And the kind of doctor you need makes a difference.
The wait for a first-time appointment with a cardiologist averaged 32 days in the nation's capital but only 11 days in Atlanta.
Got knee pain? Waits for an initial consultation with an orthopedic surgeon averaged 18 days in San Diego and five days in Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Houston.
For a well-woman visit, waits for a first-time OB/GYN appointment ranged from 46 days in Boston to 10 days in Seattle.
Those are averages. The longest reported wait time was a stunning 256 days for a particular Minneapolis dermatologist. You could wait 129 days for a certain Seattle family practice and 132 days for one San Diego cardiologist, the survey found.
But people frustrated by waits for one doctor often can seek another, depending on their insurance and how far they're willing to drive.
WHY THE WAIT?
Partly, there aren't enough doctors. A graying population that needs more medical care was straining the system even before the new health care law allowed more people to enter the system. With older physicians retiring, too, there aren't enough new ones coming on board to meet growing demand.
Primary care physicians get the most attention, and nearly 20 million people live in areas officially designated in need of more, said Dr. Atul Grover of the Association of American Medical Colleges. But specialists can be hard to find, too, especially in rural areas and in parts of the country where new doctors haven't kept up with rapid population growth. That includes parts of the Southeast and Southwest, particularly Arizona, Nevada and Texas, he said.
The AAMC estimates that by 2020, there will be a shortage of 45,000 primary care physicians and 46,000 surgeons and specialists nationally.
WHAT ABOUT URGENT VISITS?
The American Academy of Family Physicians says 80 percent of its members make provisions for same-day appointments. Half also offer extended hours, with some appointments early or in the evening to catch people who can't get off work for a doctor's appointment and those who otherwise would go to the emergency room for a sudden problem, said AAFP president Dr. Reid Blackwelder.
How many patients say they're able to get quick appointments when they need them? A survey by Medicare overseers found 82 percent of beneficiaries seeking an appointment for an illness or injury never had to wait longer than they wanted. A Commonwealth Fund survey published last year found almost half of adults in the U.S. got a same- or next-day appointment the last time they were sick, compared with about 70 percent of those surveyed in Germany and New Zealand.
WHAT'S TOO LONG?
The VA has lifted its goal of 14 days to get an appointment, after investigators determined workers falsified records to cover up delays. For private doctors, there are no national standards on waits.
California, however, does have some rules requiring that certain types of health plans ensure their customers get timely access: 48 to 96 hours for an urgent need, and 10 to 15 business days for a non-urgent need.
-The Associated Press
First published June 13 2014, 12:15 PM