My daughter recently signed her new baby up as a patient at a pediatric practice and had to choose one of the doctors in the group. “Dr. Salno,” they said, “is great. But you have to wait at least an hour to see him, every time.” She ended up choosing another doctor in the practice.
Her experience isn’t uncommon — so many of the very best healthcare providers we know have long wait times in their offices or are frequently running behind. Is that a problem for healthcare, or is it simply part of the reality?
In our experiences as medical providers, there is sometimes a sense that long wait times, doctors who are hours behind, and extensive travel to get medical care are all just facts of life in medicine. And that makes sense — there is a shortage of providers, especially physicians, and every healthcare provider I know has far more work to do each day than time to do it in. For some of us, long wait times and long travel times are practically badges of honor, showing just how in demand our practice is.
In fact, those travel and wait times are long, and aren't decreasing. A recent study by Altarum shows that “Despite significant investments in the United States [from 2006 to 2017] in improving access to health care through better insurance, the use of innovative delivery systems, and advances in digitizing health care records and automating administrative processes, travel and wait times show no discernable improvements.” These dynamics haven't been improving in decades.
The place that I see travel times really come into play are for patients with complex, chronic, or even acute but serious conditions. According to the Altarum study, patients who reported their health as “poor”, spent an average 26.4 hours per month on healthcare. That time may be transiting from provider to provider, from appointment to appointment, in addition to actually accessing care.
But is this time that patients spend a bad thing? Is it something that should be decreased? And further, are travel and wait times something that healthcare providers should concern themselves with, or is it someone else’s problem?
Long travel times may not seem like the healthcare provider's problem until we consider the health cost of that time. Of course, there is the element of lost productivity and wages. But even just focusing on health itself, I believe that spending so much time accessing healthcare, as well as transit and waiting, has a severe and negative impact on our patients' health. Time spent at home with loved ones, hours invested in hobbies, focus at work, and rest in our own beds are all crucial elements of healing from disease. Every hour that a patient spends in a waiting room or driving to yet another appointment detracts from this healing time.
So what can healthcare providers do? Most importantly, we can try to understand our patients' lives, travel times, wait times, and recovery and see it as "our problem." We can use medical collaboration tools to loop in other providers' input without the patient needing to trek across the state to gain that input when a picture and a discussion is actually all that is required (and this is reimbursable). When tools like iClickCare exist, that use telemedicine to dramatically decrease transit and wait times, there is the opportunity for health to truly improve, because the patients are able to spend more time healing and less time transporting or waiting