Physician Practice

Use technology when patient has delay in scheduling specialist appointment

Physician Practice Insider, June 26, 2017

Referring patients to specialists is fairly routine for most primary care practices, but it can be a challenge when patients are enrolled in Medicaid or live in rural areas where specialists are in short supply.

For both issues, healthcare information technology is providing solutions through online consults and telemedicine programs that fill gaps in coverage created by geography and provider shortages. But in most cases, when there are enough specialists to go around, making timely referrals for patients is just a matter of executing a game plan.

“It gets back to coordination of care and making sure that, as a primary care physician, you have a certain group of specialists that you can align with,” says David Zetter, president of Zetter Healthcare Management Consultants in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “And it also involves training staff so that they know who to refer patients to.”

Making an appointment with any type of physician, whether it’s a specialist referral or a primary care visit, can be a waiting game, particularly for first-time patients. 

According to a 2017 study published by research and consulting firm Merritt Hawkins, the average wait time for a new patient to see a physician was 24 days, up from an average of 18.5 days in 2014. In smaller markets, wait times were about one-third longer at 32 days. Those average wait times varied by specialty—for example, 32 days to see a dermatologist and 26 days to see an obstetrician. 

The study noted that “finding a physician who can see you today or even three weeks from today can be a challenge” and that “the challenge becomes even more difficult in smaller communities with fewer physicians per population.”

One of the most common problems associated with longer wait times for patients is supply and demand. Some regions, particularly rural areas, don’t have enough specialists to go around or enough physicians who accept patients on public plans such as Medicaid. 

This article was originally published in Physician Practice Perspectives. Subscribers can read the full article in the June 2017 issue.

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