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We, too, stand and wait

One small consolation of our high-priced health care system — our $2.7 trillion collective medical bill — has been the notion that at least we get medical attention quickly.

Americans look down on national health systems like Canada's and Britain's because of their notorious waiting lists. In recent weeks, the Veterans Affairs hospitals have been pilloried for long patient wait times, with top officials losing their jobs.

Yet there is emerging evidence that lengthy waits to get a doctor's appointment have become the norm in many parts of American medicine, particularly for general doctors but also for specialists. And that includes patients with private insurance as well as those with Medicaid or Medicare.

Merritt Hawkins, a physician staffing firm, found long waits last year when it polled five types of doctors' offices about several types of nonemergency appointments including heart checkups, visits for knee pain and routine gynecologic exams. The waits varied greatly by market and specialty. For example, patients waited an average of 29 days nationally to see a dermatologist for a skin exam, 66 days to have a physical in Boston and 32 days for a heart evaluation by a cardiologist in Washington.

The Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based foundation that focuses on health care, compared wait times in the United States to those in 10 other countries last year. “We were smug and we had the impression that the United States had no wait times — but it turns out that's not true,” said Dr. Robin Osborn, a researcher for the foundation. “It's the primary care where we're really behind, with many people waiting six days or more” to get an appointment when they were “sick or needed care.”

The study found that 26 percent of 2,002 U.S. adults surveyed said they waited six days or more for appointments, better only than Canada (33 percent) and Norway (28 percent), and much worse than in other countries with national health systems like the Netherlands (14 percent) or Britain (16 percent). When it came to appointments with specialists, patients in Britain and Switzerland reported shorter waits than those in the United States, but the United States did rank better than the other eight countries.

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