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Melissa Gifford

By: Melissa Gifford on March 6th, 2023

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Why Do You Wait So Long at Doctor's Offices?

Concierge Medicine | Membership

It’s the day of your doctor’s appointment. It may have taken you a while to get an appointment, but it’s here.

You drive to the office and walk into the lobby or waiting room. You’re ready to see your primary care physician.

You head to the front desk to check in. The receptionist notes your arrival and directs you to a chair. You sit down. Maybe you grab a magazine to flip through.

And that’s when the waiting begins.

What is the average wait time in doctor’s offices?

A 2018 study by Vitals determined patients wait for an average of 18 minutes and 13 seconds for a physician. While there hasn’t been an updated figure since then, a quick search of the Twittersphere reveals it’s still a common problem with the traditional primary care model.

Because the average length of an actual appointment is usually between 10-15 minutes, patients often spend more time waiting than they do actually talking to their doctor.

So it begs the question: why do doctors make you wait so long?

Because of an unfortunate combination of not enough primary care physicians, too many patients, and the health insurance reimbursement model.

Group of patients waiting in a doctor's office

1. There aren’t enough primary care physicians.

The United States is in the midst of a physician shortage, particularly among primary care physicians. A report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects a shortage of between 17,800 and 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034.

Why aren’t there more primary care physicians? It’s complicated, but it can be boiled down to three reasons:

  1. More and more PCPs are approaching retirement age. The AAMC projected that 40% of physicians in the U.S. will be 65 or older within the next decade.
  2. Fewer medical school students select primary care as their specialty, in part because it pays significantly less than other specialties. For instance, the average salary of a cardiologist is $490,000, per the 2022 Medscape Physician Compensation report. The average salary of a PCP is $260,000. Given the debt medical students rack up during their education, it’s not surprising more are choosing the more lucrative fields.
  3. The model of traditional primary care relying on health insurance reimbursements for their revenue is broken. PCP practices rely heavily on these reimbursements for medical services to generate revenue for their practice. And that leads us to the next reason why doctors make you wait so long.

2. Doctors have too many patients.

When your primary source of revenue as a business is through health insurance reimbursements, there’s one easy way to increase revenue – see more patients.

It’s a flawed incentive arrangement that prioritizes the need to see as many patients as possible, instead of the right number required to provide high-quality care for every patient. If you want to keep the business running, you’ve got to see more and more patients.

For doctors running their own practices or as part of a larger hospital system, the pressure of keeping the business running looms, and forces them to grow their panel size to exorbitant sizes.

Today, it’s estimated the average panel size of a traditional primary care physician is north of 2,000 patients.

The result? Packed schedules (sometimes double booked) and not enough time in the day.

With that many patients to take care of, a primary care physician’s schedule can be booked weeks in advance. You probably just experienced that trying to get an appointment.

And because doctor’s offices, like most businesses, typically operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an hour for lunch, they churn through dozens of appointments each day, often 20-35. It’s their only option if they want to provide care to thousands.

There just is not enough time in the day to squeeze in everyone effectively.

That means they are booked back-to-back-to-back with patient appointments, and if they spend extra time with one patient, it just makes them late for the next one, and it snowballs from there. Some physicians even double-book appointment slots to provide as much care as possible.

That’s why doctors make you wait so long in a waiting room, lobby, or exam room. They’re trying to keep up with a slammed schedule every day, and that’s just not sustainable.

Patient happily shaking hands with physician

One solution to waiting at doctors’ offices? Concierge medicine.

Let’s be clear: this is not the fault of the physician. It’s the hand they are dealt in the traditional primary care model.

Unfortunately, unless medical schools suddenly increase the rate at which they produce PCPs and health insurance reimbursements change, it’s a system that is unlikely to change, leaving you still waiting at the doctor’s office.

And that’s one of the reasons the concierge medicine model has grown significantly since it was first used in the late 1990s.

Concierge doctors charge a membership fee for patients to be part of the practice. They then reduce the size of their panels from 2,000+ to somewhere between 400-600 patients.

By reducing the size of their panel, they see fewer patients per day and spend more time with each patient (often 30 minutes).

With fewer appointments on the daily schedule and more than enough time with each patient, concierge medicine practices can guarantee little to no waiting. At PartnerMD, we’ll get you back in five minutes or less, often immediately upon your arrival.

If you’re just sick of the waiting that is common at the doctor’s office and want a better experience, it may be time to consider concierge medicine.

As a concierge medicine patient, you can expect your appointment to start on time, and shortly after checking in, you’ll be taken back to the exam room to begin your appointment.

It’s one of the ways concierge medicine removes the hassles of the traditional primary care experience.

Want to learn more about concierge medicine? Download our Understanding Concierge Medicine ebook.

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