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Physician wait times up, expected to keep increasing

Patients will be flipping through magazines longer for the foreseeable future because the ranks of the newly insured will surge in 2014.

By Sue Ter Maat — Posted April 16, 2013

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A growing physician shortage, payment decreases and adoption of electronic health records may be to blame as patients wait longer for care in doctors’ offices.

The shortest average wait time jumped nationally to more than 16 minutes, which is up by about a minute from 2011, based on a report from Vitals, a health care survey organization that analyzed patient-reported wait times in 2012 from its database of more than 870,000 physicians for its late March report.

Alaska had the shortest average wait time at 16 minutes, 28 seconds, while Mississippi had the longest at 24 minutes, 25 seconds. Among major cities, Denver had the shortest wait at 15 minutes, 15 seconds. Charlotte, N.C., came in with the longest at 18 minutes, 19 seconds.

Vitals said wait times aren’t likely to go down anytime soon, not with newly insured patients expected to hit the health system in 2014 through the Affordable Care Act.

“As the supply of qualified doctors remains unchanged, the new health care law requires 30 million more Americans to have health insurance” by 2021, said Mitch Rothschild, CEO of Vitals, in a statement. “This flood of new demand is causing a major disruption to the system. For the unchanging supply of doctors, it will mean less time to spend with patients in examination rooms. It also has a direct impact on how long it takes to see a doctor — and ultimately weighs into how consumers choose” physicians.

Nearing patients’ breaking point

In similar studies conducted by BSM Consulting, a health care consulting firm based in Incline Village, Nev., patients don’t seem to mind spending less than 20 minutes in a waiting room. Or at least they don’t complain about it in patient surveys, said Derek Preece, an executive consultant and principal for BSM Consulting. “After 20 minutes, patients think their time is being wasted,” he said.

Wait time is typically defined as the amount of time a patient is in a waiting room and does not include any wait in the exam room.

When physician offices experience long wait times, it’s usually due to high patient demand, Preece said. But other factors are at work, he said. Declining insurance payments have led some offices to add new patients to make up for the shortfall. Because of less income, physicians hire fewer staff.

Preece said the transition to electronic medical records is another reason why wait times are increasing, because of the learning curve required to implement them. It can take up to a year before the staff is up to speed, he said.

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