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 began investigating in the fall after Seven Days reported long wait times for medical appointments.

“Long waits for some specialty services existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and were likely exacerbated by staffing shortages, new demands for care, and demand for previously delayed care,” the report said.

In the so-called secret buyer investigation, more than 1,000 calls were made to more than 400 specialty clinics in Vermont and contiguous counties in December 2021 and January 2022, seeking the next new available patient appointment. . Most specialists – 85% – were taking on new patients, the report said.

Wait times to see a specialist in Vermont averaged 61 days but varied by type of specialty, and 65 days by hospital providers but varied by location, according to the report.

The state has also heard from Vermonters in public forums and written testimony, including one who said it was not acceptable for someone with a potential diagnosis of leukemia to wait four months for an appointment and another who said he couldn’t wait three months while bleeding every day.

Hospital officials said wait times need to be reduced, but also questioned part of the report, saying it failed to take into account constraints imposed on hospitals by the state’s regulatory framework. . They also raised concerns that secret buyer calls were made during a spike in COVID-19 cases and historic staffing shortages, consuming valuable staff time as hospitals were flooded.

“While there are results in this assessment that we want to be different, the fact is we need to reduce wait times,” said Jeff Tieman, president and CEO of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health. Systems, in a written statement. “To be successful, we must work with the state and others to make progress on our staff shortage.

Hospitals and healthcare providers also need regulators to be more flexible, he said.

The report found that a number of factors can contribute to long wait times, including a complicated referral process; perhaps too few specialists for the demand; staffing shortages and delayed health care during the pandemic; and primary care physicians perhaps too often referring patients to specialists.

Among the recommendations, the Department of Financial Regulation will seek authorization from the Legislative Assembly to regularly track and publicly report on wait times, and hospitals should create a committee or appoint a board member to participate in monitoring wait times and improving patient access.

The report also recommends that the state prioritize a workforce development strategy, such as creating a physician assistant program, and pursue study to include access to primary care. , mental health and addiction treatment.

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