Why physician appointment wait times are rising

Every five years, the American healthcare staffing company AMN Healthcare publishes a report on physician appointment wait times in the United States. The new 2022 report was published a few weeks ago. 

The data is based on a survey of 1,034 physician offices in 15 metropolitan areas. Five medical disciplines were surveyed (Dermatology, Obstetrics-Gynecology, Cardiology, Family Medicine, and Orthopedic Surgery).

The results are obvious: Patients have to wait longer and longer for an appointment with their doctor.

  • On average, patients have to wait 26.6 days for an appointment. Wait times are longest for dermatologists. Here, patients wait an average of 34.5 days. 
  • Compared to the last survey in 2017, wait times have increased by an average of 8%. In Orthopedic Surgery they have almost doubled (+48%).
  • In a 10-year comparison, wait times have increased by 40.8% from 18.5 days. 
Infographic MTP
Infographic MTP

The study is, of course, not representative of the nation as a whole, as only urban regions are considered. However, one can assume that wait times in the rest of the country are even higher, as major cities tend to have higher ratios of physicians per capita. 

“It’s a sobering sign for the rest of the country when even patients in large cities must wait weeks to see a physician,” said Tom Florence, President of AMN Healthcare’s Physician Search division.

Why are wait times getting longer?

The most important reason for the increased appointment wait times is the physician shortage, which we have reported on here on several occasions. 

“Longer physician appointment wait times are a significant indicator that the nation is experiencing a growing shortage of physicians,” said Florence. 

And it doesn't look like the situation is going to improve anytime soon. According to American Medical Association data, more than 30% of active doctors age 60 or older, and the number of new physicians entering the field, has been limited by a cap on funding for training that Congress enacted in 1997 and just lifted in 2021.

What about the rest of the world?

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive study on appointment wait times for other countries like there is in the U.S. But the physician shortage also affects many other countries. 

A study conducted by the Robert Bosch Stiftung anticipates that by 2035, some 11,000 primary care physician positions will be unfilled in Germany, and that nearly 40% of countries will be underserved or at risk of undersupply. 

Why have wait times in family medicine decreased?

It is striking that wait times in family medicine have fallen compared to five years ago. According to the authors of the study, however, this is not because there are more physicians in family medicine.

Instead, patients are using new primary care services such as urgent care centers, retail clinics, and telemedicine. Here, however, they typically do not meet with a physician, but with nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs).

So new primary care offerings can certainly ease the burden on an overloaded healthcare system. In dermatology, for example—the field with the longest wait times—more and more telemedicine offerings are emerging.  

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