Report finds long wait times for some medical specialists
Wait times for new patients to see a medical specialist in Vermont averaged 61 days during part of the pandemic, according to a state report released Wednesday.
Vermont state government officials started investigating in the fall after Seven Days reported on long wait times for medical appointments.
“Long waits for some specialty services existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and have likely been exacerbated by staffing shortages, new demands for care, and demand for previously deferred care,” the report stated.
In the so-called secret shopper survey, more than 1,000 calls were made to over 400 specialty clinics in Vermont and contiguous counties in December 2021 and January 2022, seeking the next available new patient appointment. Most of the specialists — 85% — were taking new patients, the report stated.
The wait times to see a specialist in Vermont averaged 61 days but varied by specialty type, and 65 days across hospital providers but varied by location, the report said.
The state also heard from Vermonters in public forums and written testimony, including one who said it was not all right for someone with a potential diagnosis of leukemia to wait four months for an appointment and another who said they could not wait three months while bleeding every day.
Hospital officials said wait times must be reduced but also questioned some of the report, saying it did not take into account the constraints on hospitals from the state’s regulatory framework. They also raised concerns that the secret shopper calls were placed during a surge in COVID-19 cases and historic staffing shortages, consuming precious staff time while hospitals were inundated.
“While there are findings in this assessment we wish were different, the fact is we must reduce wait times,” said Jeff Tieman, president and CEO of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, in a written statement. “To succeed, we need to work with the State and others to make progress on our staffing shortage.”
Hospitals and health care providers also need regulators to be more flexible, he said.
The report found that a number of factors may be contributing to long wait times, including a complicated referral process; possibly too few specialists for the demand; staffing shortages and deferred health care during the pandemic; and primary care doctors possibly referring patients too often to specialists.
Among the recommendations, the Department of Financial Regulation will seek authority from the Legislature to regularly track and publicly report wait times, and hospitals should create a committee or designate a board member to participate in the monitoring of wait times and patient access improvement.
The report also recommends that the state prioritize a workforce development strategy, such as looking into creating a physician assistant program, and continue the study to include access to primary care, mental health and substance use treatment.