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Appointment wait times drop for family physicians, indicating shift in care

Study examines how long it takes to see a physician across United States.

Family physicians are getting patients in for appointments more quickly, which may indicate people are using other sources for their gateway to health care.

Meanwhile, family medicine was the only one among five specialties to show an overall decrease in patient wait times since 2017. Average wait times are growing for nonemergency consultations in cardiology, dermatology, obstetrics-gynecology, and orthopedic surgery.

The findings were part of the “2022 Survey of Physician Appointment Wait Times and Medicare and Medicaid Acceptance Rates,” published this month by physician recruiting firm Merritt Hawkins. The study from spring 2022 examined wait times for nonemergent conditions among 1,034 physician offices with five specialties in 15 major cities across the United States.

Overall, the average wait time for a physician appointment in 2022 is 26 days, up from 24.1 days in 2017, the most recent year the survey was conducted, and up from 21 days in 2004, the survey’s first year.

Family medicine appointment times

There were 222 family physician practices included among the study. It found an average time to appointment of 20.6 days, down from 29.3 days in 2017, and up from 19.5 days in 2013 and 20.3 days in 2009. The average shortest time to appointment was 1.8 days, and 74.7 days was the average of longest time to appointment.

Patients in Washington, D.C., enjoyed the shortest average time to an appointment, eight days, while those in Portland, Oregon, had the longest average wait time at 44 days.

Portland also had the longest, shortest time to an appointment, at seven days, while Boston had the longest, longest time to an appointment, at 136 days. At least a dozen cities – Boston, Seattle, Denver, San Diego, Dallas, Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, New York, and Washington, D.C. – had at least one family physician able to get patients an appointment with just a one-day wait time.

‘A major shift’ in primary care

The findings about family medicine might sound like good news for patients seeking care. But it also indicates “a major shift in how patients access primary care that has taken place over the last several years,” Tom Florence, president of AMN Healthcare physician search division, said in a news release.

“The number of urgent care centers and retail clinics is exploding, creating a new front door to the healthcare system,” Tom Florence, president of AMN Healthcare physician search division, said in a news release. “As a result, accessing a family physician, while still challenging, can be less difficult.”

Those venues often are staffed by nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs). The study cited a November 2018 report from the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI), which found visits to primary care physicians dropped by 18% from 2012 to 2016.

While demand for primary care physicians remains “robust,” demand for NPs has surpassed it in the last two years, according to Merritt Hawkins recruiting data.

“As NPs and PAs take on a greater percentage of primary care appointments, appointment times for family physicians may continue to decline,” the Merritt Hawkins study said.

Fewer adult patients have no primary care physician, the study said. That included 45% of people aged 18 to 29 years, 29% of people aged 30 to 49 years, and 18% of people aged 50 to 64 years, according to the HCCI figures. Telemedicine also is a factor in drawing patients away from primary care physicians, Florence said.

Other specialties

The study said Merritt Hawkins aimed to replicate the experience of someone new to a community seeking to schedule a nonemergency physician appointment through a general accessible source, such as the Internet.

Overall, the figures support a possible shortage of physicians across the United States, Florence said, and the report examined factors such as a growing, aging population in ill health, an aging population of physicians, burnout and limited numbers of new physicians.

For the other specialties, the report said:

  • The average wait time to see an obstetrician-gynecologist is 31.4 days, up from 26.4 days in 2017, a 19% increase. Average wait times ranged from a high of 59 days in Philadelphia to a low of 19 days in New York.
  • The average wait time so see a dermatologist is 34.5 days, up from 32.3 days in 2017, a 7% increase. Average wait times ranged from a high of 72 days in Minneapolis to a low of nine days in Philadelphia.
  • The average wait time to see a cardiologist is 26.6 days, up from 21.1 days in 2017, a 26% increase. Average wait times ranged from a high of 49 days in Portland, Oregon to a low of 13 days in Dallas.
  • The average wait time to see an orthopedic surgeon is 16.9 days, up from 11.4 days in 2017, a 48% increase. Average wait times ranged from a high of 55 days in San Diego to a low of 5 days in Washington, D.C.

This article was published by our sister publication Medical Economics.