- Appointment wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are getting better, despite a negative public reputation to the contrary, according to new data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
The study, which was conducted by VA researchers using data from 2014 and 2017, compared appointment wait times in VA facilities and the private sector (PS) in 15 major metropolitan areas. The researchers looked at wait times for primary care, dermatology, cardiology, and orthopedic settings.
Appointment wait times are an important indicator of a positive patient experience, the researchers noted. Research confirms that long appointment wait times are a drain on patient satisfaction. Additionally, long wait times can cause delayed access to necessary clinical care.
VA has a long history of long appointment wait times, the VA researchers acknowledged, but has since implemented new strategies to close the gap between VA and PS wait time averages.
In 2014, wait times in VA facilities averaged at 22.5 days, compared to 18.7 days for private sector providers, a difference VA suggested is negligible. By 2017, average VA wait times were 17.7 days. In private clinics, wait times increased to 29.8 days.
“Since 2014, VA has made a concerted, transparent effort to improve access to care,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “This study affirms that VA has made notable progress in improving access in primary care, and other key specialty care areas.”
These wait time improvements happened in primary care, dermatology, and cardiology settings. In orthopedic settings, wait times continued to cause issue, the researchers found.
Wait times in orthopedic settings remained shorter in private settings than in the VA in both 2014 and 2017. However, during that time period VA did reduce wait times by 5.4 days; the private sector remained static.
What’s more, VA has seen an increase in the number of patients it sees, up to 5.1 million patients by 2017, the agency said.
“Concurrently, there was an increase in the number of unique patients seen, volume of encounters, and an improvement in CAHPS access score ratings within the VA, further supporting the finding that access to care has improved over time within the VA,” the researchers wrote.
The VA researchers acknowledged that further analysis is necessary to understand appointment wait times and patient access in other setting types.
“An analysis of access to mental health services and of access in rural areas in the VA and PS would be useful to pursue in further research,” the researchers explained. “Although the results reflect positively on the VA, we intend to continue improving wait times, the accuracy of the data captured, and the transparency of reporting information to veterans and the public.”
All of this comes as VA handled a care access and wait time PR crisis that occurred in 2014.
“In 2014, reports indicated that veterans were waiting too long for care and that scheduling data may have been manipulated at a United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facility in Phoenix, Arizona,” the researchers recounted. “This incident damaged the VA’s credibility and created a public perception regarding the VA health care system’s inability to see patients in a timely manner. In response, the VA has worked to improve access, including primary care, mental health, and other specialty care services.”
Since then, VA said it has implemented many patient-centered care access strategies, such as the Veterans Choice program, online appointment scheduling, and other tools to make it easier for patients to access treatment in a reasonable timeframe.
To help target further efforts, the healthcare industry must pinpoint what is an acceptable patient wait time, the researchers concluded. In doing so, VA and other healthcare facilities will have a benchmark by which to measure its patient care access successes or shortcomings.