Why Does It Take So Long to Schedule a Doctor's Appointment?

A healthcare provider holding an iPad during a counseling session

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Key Takeaways

  • Wait times for health appointments are stretching longer because of labor shortages and increasing demands.
  • Many physicians are nurses in the U.S. are approaching retirement age, at the same time as more Americans are dealing with chronic illnesses.
  • Try to opt for telehealth visits for initial consultations to cut down your wait time.

Waiting months for your appointment with a specialist seems commonplace in the United States. But lately, you might feel like even seeing a primary care physician is a monumental task.

A lack of healthcare providers is a significant contributing factor to longer appointment wait times. According to a white paper by Definitive Healthcare, more than 330,000 healthcare providers left the workforce in 2021 alone, with physicians representing the lion’s share.

While burnout drove part of the exodus, an aging workforce is another reason behind the provider shortage. According to the paper, almost 45% of all physicians are over 55 years old and the average age of a nurse is 57.

While physicians and nurses are retiring, hospitals are expanding. The paper says the largest healthcare systems added 10,000 beds and 35 hospitals in the last three years. As doctors retire and hospitals expand their capacity, wait times and demands for current providers have only increased.

Not only is the supply of healthcare providers decreasing, but demand is increasing. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that by 2034, the number of Americans over 65 will grow by more than 42%. With age comes a greater likelihood of illness, and the need for primary care physicians and specialists is expected to spike.

In addition to age, Americans as a whole are getting sicker. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60% of Americans have a chronic illness and 40% have two or more. As medical needs go up, more patients are finding their options limited.

How Can You Get a Doctor's Appointment Faster?

According to David Berg, CEO of Redirect Health in Scottsdale, Arizona, you can speed up the process of securing an appointment by finding offices that use a hybrid of telehealth and in-person visits. You can often do initial consultations with a practitioner over a video call before having to enter an actual exam room.

If a hybrid office isn’t available and time is of the essence, Berg said there’s a magic word: cash.

“If you just said, ‘I’m cash pay, and I want to pay at the time of service.’ You are going to get a different type of appointment scheduling than somebody who says I have XYZ insurance company,” Berg said.

Offering cash at the time of service may move you to the front of the line. There’s also often a different price for cash-pay services, so even without insurance, you may pay less than you would by going through insurance.

There is a risk to using cash, though. Anything paid at the cash price doesn’t count toward your deductible. While this may be an option for initial visits, if continuing care is needed, you may find yourself back in the same predicament—waiting for months for an appointment covered by your insurance.

What This Means For You

A combination of the growing population and age of Americans, especially with worsening health conditions, and ongoing provider shortages form the base of the appointment wait time crisis. Using telehealth services where available may help. Paying cash may also move you to the front of the line but comes with issues if ongoing care is needed.

1 Source
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About chronic diseases.

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.