States Vary in the Wait to See Doctors

They say patience is a virtue, but for those who need health care, it's a necessity. And if you live in an urban area, you could be waiting several months to get an appointment with specialist or family doctor.

A study by Merritt Hawkins and Associates shows that appointment wait times have increased on average by more than a week since the survey was last conducted in 2004.

Merritt Hawkins, a consulting firm that specializes in recruiting physicians and other health care professionals, surveyed more than 1,150 medical offices in 15 cities. The survey measured average appointment wait times in family practices as well as four specialties: cardiology, dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology and orthopedic surgery.

The survey found that, on average, wait times have increased by 8.6 days per city. Boston had the longest wait, averaging 49.6 days, followed by Philadelphia with 27 and Los Angeles with 24.2. The shortest was Atlanta with an 11.2-day wait.

In all cities among all the specialties, the wait was 20.5 days.

The survey surmises that long wait times in Boston could be the result in part of the 2006 health reform initiative that requires nearly every Massachusetts resident to get health insurance.

Phil Miller, vice president of public relations for Merritt Hawkins and Associates, sees one clear solution to long wait times:

"We need to be training more physicians, particularly primary care physicians," he says. "We have been training the same number of doctors for the past 25 years, but a lot has changed in the last quarter-century."

Government restrictions on education spending have curtailed the supply of doctors, says Richard Cooper, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, he says, the government is trying to increase insurance coverage and access.

"This will demand more physicians. It's like preparing for a war having previously decided to stop training soldiers. Madness," he writes in an e-mail.

Wait Times For Doctors Appointments Linked to Health Care Access

The survey also asked which offices accept Medicaid patients. It found that 55% of all metro markets accept Medicaid, a program for the needy. Minneapolis ranked highest; 82.4% of offices accepted Medicaid. Dallas, at 38.6%, ranked lowest.

Medicaid's vulnerable patients often have to jump through hoops to get care, says Joseph Heyman, chairman of the American Medical Association.

"Our nation has a clear history of reducing health care program budgets through across-the-board cuts to health care professionals, and the impact on patients is reduced access to care," Heyman says. "Public safety-net programs like Medicaid and Medicare need to be properly financed so that they work for patients and physicians."

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