Here’s something else to make your blood boil next time you’re sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for your appointment: New research shows patients are spending more time than ever booking and waiting for an appointment — and it’s costing us all money, as well as time.
The new study, by Harvard Medical School and published in the American Journal of Managed Care
, calculates how many minutes patients spend seeking medical care — and the dollar value of their time lost from work. Among the findings:
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- A typical visit to a doctor consumes an average of 121 minutes of the patient’s time — 37 minutes in travel, 64 minutes waiting for care or filling out forms.
- The average time spent with a physician: 20 minutes at most.
- It costs the average patient $43 in lost time for each doctor visit — more than the typical out-of-pocket cost for the care itself (about $32), based on the average sum a person could earn if working during that time.
- Americans spent 1.1 billion hours every year obtaining such care for themselves or others — time the researchers valued at $52 billion.
“In the United States, opportunity costs of seeking care are substantial for the average individual. For every dollar of direct medical expenditures for ambulatory physician visits, 15 additional cents were spent on the indirect costs of patient time,” said lead researcher Ateev Mehrotra, M.D., associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School and colleagues.
“Time spent per year by employed adults seeking medical care exceeded the number of annual hours worked by more than half a million full-time employees and the societal opportunity costs are greater than $50 billion a year.”
According to the researchers’ findings, minorities, jobless, and low-income folks who are least able to afford lost time from work tend to wait the longest — 25-28 percent more because of longer waiting times in clinics.
Health experts say several reasons account for growing weight times.
First, many doctors overbook patient appointments — just as airlines oversell flights and restaurants take more reservations than they have tables — because they expect some patients will cancel at the last minute. But growing doctor shortages in many areas of the country — particularly for primary care physicians and in-demand specialists — are also a factor.
David Brownstein, M.D., a board-certified family physician and medical director for the Center for Holistic Medicine in West Bloomfield, Mich., tells Newsmax Health the doctor shortage has reached “crisis” proportions and is only going to get worse, paralleling the problems experienced by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"There's a bunch of factors to this but either we make some changes or there's going to be some big structural problems in our healthcare and just what happened to the VA is going to happen to the rest of us," says Dr. Brownstein, editor of the Natural Way to Health
newsletter. "We're not going to be able to get appointments with anyone because there's not going to be enough doctors out there."
Currently, as many as one in five Americans live in areas where there aren’t enough doctors, driving up patient wait times.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the nation will be 91,500 physicians short of what it needs by 2020. That deficit could hit 130,600 by 2025, in part because Obamacare will hike the number of insured Americans seeking care and many doctors are nearing retirement age, getting into concierge medicine, or leaving the profession.
A key factor: Too few medical students are able to secure the 3- to 7-year residency training programs at the country's teaching hospitals, which are required for them to work in medicine after they finish medical school.
Federal regulations and funding deficits for those residency programs have capped the number of med students who can participate. Ironically, medical school applications and enrollment are skyrocketing, yet hundreds of graduates are unable to land a residency each year.
"At a time when the nation faces a shortage of more than 90,000 doctors by the end of the decade and millions are gaining access to health insurance, we are very glad that more students than ever want to become physicians," said AAMC President Darrell G. Kirch, M.D. "However, unless Congress lifts the 16-year-old cap on federal support for residency training, we will still face a shortfall of physicians…."
In the meantime, health experts advise the following steps to reduce your time spent languishing in a doctor’s office:
- Book your appointment first thing in morning, right after the office opens, or immediately after lunch — before your physician’s patient load gets backed up.
- Bring your insurance documents, numbers, medical information, and any other documentation you might need to your appointment, to streamline your visit and cut down on paperwork-related delays.
- Call ahead to see if your doctor is on time or running late, and adjust your schedule accordingly.
- If you’re waiting a long time, don’t grin and bear it — complain (nicely and professionally) to the office staff.
- Bring work with you to the doctor’s office. Most physician waiting rooms are equipped with WiFi, so you may be able to work while you wait.
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