Waiting Times

WAITING TIMES….Business Week finally runs an article stating the obvious: for all the conservative shrieking about wait times for medical care in countries with universal healthcare systems, the United States has considerable waiting lists itself:

If you find a suspicious-looking mole and want to see a dermatologist, you can expect an average wait of 38 days in the U.S….Got a knee injury?….Nationwide, the average is 17 days. “Waiting is definitely a problem in the U.S., especially for basic care,” says Karen Davis, president of the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund, which studies health-care policy.

All this time spent “queuing,” as other nations call it, stems from too much demand and too little supply. Only one-third of U.S. doctors are general practitioners, compared with half in most European countries. On top of that, only 40% of U.S. doctors have arrangements for after-hours care, vs. 75% in the rest of the industrialized world. Consequently, some 26% of U.S. adults in one survey went to an emergency room in the past two years because they couldn’t get in to see their regular doctor, a significantly higher rate than in other countries.

There is no systemized collection of data on wait times in the U.S. That makes it difficult to draw comparisons with countries that have national health systems, where wait times are not only tracked but made public. However, a 2005 survey by the Commonwealth Fund of sick adults in six nations found that only 47% of U.S. patients could get a same- or next-day appointment for a medical problem, worse than every other country except Canada.

Anyone who’s ever dealt with the healthcare system in the United States — and that’s almost all of us — knows perfectly well that we often have long waits to make appointments. As in other countries, emergency care is generally pretty quick, but nonemergency care is queued up based on the seriousness of the problem and the availability of doctors. Our wait times are generally pretty good in the specific category of nonemergency surgeries like hip replacements (though the numbers are inflated because we don’t count the people who can’t get nonemergency surgery at all because they’re uninsured), but this is hardly surprising since we also spend twice as much money per patient as anybody else. Combine our spending levels with a more rational universal system and we could do even better.

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