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Long Travel, Wait Times Put Strain on Patient Care Access

Patients are spending 45 minutes traveling to and waiting for their medical appointments, putting a strain on patient care access.

travel wait times

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Travel and wait times are longer for healthcare consumers than they are for consumers in other industries, posing a threat to patient care access, according to a recent issue brief from the Altarum Institute.

Using 2006 to 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey, report author Corwin N. Rhyan, a senior analyst at the Altarum Institute’s Center for Value in Health Care, found that patients have seen steadily long travel and wait times before actually receiving care.

On average, patients must travel 34 minutes to get to a medical appointment. Once at the care facility, the patient faces an average 11-minute wait time, Rhyan reported.

The healthcare industry has even longer wait times than other industries known for bureaucracy or cumbersome wait times. Healthcare had longer travel and wait times than legal services, personal care, vehicle repair, and government activities such as obtaining a license or permit.

These wait times are overtaking the entire patient experience, the report continued. The amount of time patients spend traveling and waiting for an appointment is nearly 50 percent of the amount of time the patient spends receiving treatment. Most patients spend about 45 minutes driving and waiting for their medical appointments, and about 75 minutes with their doctors, Rhyan stated.

Health-related activities are considerably eating into patients’ lifestyles. All health-related activities, including receiving care, personal care, being a family caregiver, and waiting and travel time, make up nearly one-fifth of patients’ lives. This averages out to about two days per month spent on health-related activities.

Long travel and wait times are also a significant financial drain on healthcare consumers, the report continued.

For one, something must give when a patient spends significant time commuting to and waiting for healthcare. Between missed hours of work or time spent with family, patients are losing out, the report noted.

When accounting for a typical patient’s hourly wages and time spent with a medical provider, the report authors estimated that patients lost out on $89 billion between 2006 and 2017 due to lost wages.

This cost barrier shows little improvement during that time period, the Rhyan added. Although the healthcare industry has made noted efforts to improve patient access to care or access to comprehensive healthcare coverage, it has done little to reduce wait times and connect patients to closer, more convenient care options.

“Given the lack of progress made in decreasing wait and travel times, despite significant system investments in access and efficiency, this report emphasizes the need for further focus on decreasing a patient’s time burden in receiving care,” Rhyana wrote.

“Technological improvements (such as in-home and telehealth care) can reduce the burden on a patient, as can further improvements in administrative efficiency such as reducing paperwork and better scheduling/alerts for patients.”

Long travel times are not a new healthcare phenomenon. Industry leaders have long highlighted the issue as critical for motivating patients to access care. When a patient faces a nearly insurmountable travel distance, she may be discouraged from accessing basic but essential preventive or primary care services.

Although long travel distances are an issue for patients across the country, they are especially pressing in rural regions.

A December 2018 report from Pew Research Center revealed that rural dwellers face a 17-minute trip to the closest local hospital, calling into question convenient patient care access. Those living in urban areas face an average 10-minute trip to the hospital while those in suburban areas experience 12-minute travel times to the hospital.

Implementing telehealth programs hold promise for closing these care access gaps, according to a 2017 report from the University of California Davis. Specialty telemedicine visits reduced distance traveled by 5 million miles for all patients between 1996 and 2013, the researchers reported. This amounted to nearly nine years’ worth of saved travel time and $3 million in saved travel costs.

As healthcare professionals continue their focus on improving patient care access, they must account for the convenience of the care. Extraordinary travel distances and long wait times do not make a feasible healthcare experience for patients. Making healthcare more accessible and easy to fit into one’s schedule will help drive engagement and activation.

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