Physician appointment wait times have increased significantly, survey finds

By Christopher Cheney 

Longer wait times for physician appointments in metropolitan areas indicate that demand for physicians is exceeding supply

The time it takes for patients to schedule a new physician appointment in 15 metropolitan areas has increased significantly, according to a recent survey report.

Physician appointment wait times reflect the supply and demand for physician services. The survey's reported increase in physician appointment wait times in four out of five specialties suggests that there is a shortage of physicians.

The survey was conducted by AMN Healthcare and the company's physician search division, Merritt Hawkins. The survey features data collected from more than 1,000 physician practices in 15 metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The survey was conducted from March to May 2022.

The survey sought to simulate someone new to a community trying to schedule a nonemergent appointment over the phone or online. The survey focused on five specialties: cardiology, dermatology, family medicine, obstetrics-gynecology, and orthopedic surgery.

The survey has several key findings:

  • Since the survey was conducted in 2017 and 2004, average physician appointment wait times have increase substantially. In 2022, the average wait time for a physician appointment across the five specialties is 26.0 days, an 8% increase compared to the 2017 survey and 24% increase compared to the 2004 survey.
  • In 2022, the average wait time to see a cardiologist is 26.6 days, which is a 26% increase compared to 2017. Average wait times to see a cardiologist range from 49 days in Portland to 13 days in Dallas.
  • In 2022, the average wait time to see a dermatologist is 34.5 days, which is a 7% increase compared to 2017. The average wait times to see a dermatologist range from 72 days in Minneapolis to nine days in Philadelphia.
  • In 2022, the average wait time to see a family medicine physician is 20.6 days, which is a decrease of 30% compared to 2017. The average wait times to see a family medicine physician range from 44 days in Portland to eight days in Washington, D.C.
  • In 2022, the average wait time to see an obstetrician-gynecologist is 31.4 days, which is a 19% increase compared to 2017. The average wait times to see an obstetrician-gynecologist range from 59 days in Philadelphia to 19 days in New York.
  • In 2022, the average wait time to see an orthopedic surgeon is 16.9 days, which is a 48% increase compared to 2017. The average wait times to see an orthopedic surgeon range from 55 days in San Diego to five days in Washington, D.C.
  • Portland (45.6 days) has the highest average physician appointment wait time across all five of the specialties.
  • New York (17.4 days) has the lowest average physician appointment wait time across all five of the specialties.

Interpreting the data

The data indicate that there is an ongoing physician shortage, Merritt Hawkins President Tom Florence told HealthLeaders.

"Simply stated, demand for physicians continues to exceed supply. Even though at its height COVID-19 temporarily suppressed demand for physicians, the underlying factors driving the physician shortage never went away. These include an aging population, widespread ill-health, an aging physician workforce, and a limited supply of newly trained physicians. The pandemic actually added accelerant to the physician access problem by creating patient backlogs and by exacerbating physician burnout and attrition. We are emerging from COVID-19 with the same key challenge we faced prior to the pandemic—a chronic shortage of physicians. The practical effect for patients is longer wait times to see a doctor," he says.

Average physician appointment wait times are even higher in rural areas of the country, Florence says. "The top metro areas we surveyed have some of the highest ratios of physicians per population in the country, yet physician appointment wait times even here can be extended and are growing. In smaller communities, wait times can be 50% or more longer. That is provided patients can find the type of specialist they need, which often is not the case. Long physician appointment wait times in major cities clearly are a troubling sign for rural communities."

Change in the healthcare provider market are linked to the decrease in wait times to see a family medicine physician, he says. "Over the last several years a new front door has opened up in healthcare. More patients are accessing primary care through urgent care centers, retail clinics, and telehealth, all venues that often are staffed with a growing number of nurse practitioners and physician assistants. That makes it less challenging to see a family physician, though it can still be difficult."

The variation in physician appointment wait times between metropolitan areas is not surprising, Florence says. "The number and type of physicians per specialty can vary in large metro areas, as can disease incidence, patient demographics, physician practice patterns, and rates of insurance coverage. These are complex medical service areas and some variation within them is to be expected."

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders. This story first appeared on HealthLeaders Media.