Healthcare Wait Times by Country

Time waits for no one and the American healthcare system does not seem to be making it a priority. Despite the fact that the United States spends more per capita on healthcare than any other nation, it can still be difficult to see a doctor in a timely manner, especially if you are trying to get an appointment with a specialist or live outside of a major metro area.

Healthcare systems around the world (including universal healthcare systems) don’t have all the answers, but some countries have figured it out better than others.

  • How does the United States compare to other countries when it comes to healthcare wait times?
  • What are the average wait times for primary care appointments, emergency room visits and specialty service consultations in America?
  • What is the status of wait times in the VA system (the closest thing we have to universal healthcare coverage)?
  • What is helping to decrease healthcare wait times in the U.S.?

Healthcare Wait Times: Best and Worst

Data takes some time to analyze, but according to the 2016 KFF analysis of Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey of Eleven Countries, the United States came in third to last for the percentage of adults who were able to make a same-day or next day appointment when care was needed. Only fifty-one percent of Americans were successful in their same-day or next day appointment booking while the average of all of the eleven countries combined was fifty-seven percent.

​“Inconsistent or unavailable data and imperfect metrics make it difficult to firmly judge system-wide health quality in the U.S.,” the report concludes, “but a review of the data we do have suggests that the system is improving across each of these dimensions, though it continues to lag behind comparably wealthy and sizable countries in many respects.”

The chart below shows the percentage of adults who made a same-day or next day appointment when they needed care in 2016:

Average Wait Times for Healthcare in America

Waiting to actually get to see the doctor is one obstacle, and it varies based on region. For example, in 2018 in Boston, patients waited an average of sixty-six days to see their primary care physician.

Next comes the challenge of actually being seen by a physician, at or near your designated appointment time:

It takes most patients an average of twenty-four days to schedule a first-time appointment with a doctor in America. Furthermore, in five different surveys, it was found that patients waited thirty percent longer to be seen by a provider in 2016 than they did in 2014.

Even in larger cities, there are still significant problems with seeing doctors in a timely manner, especially specialists. According to a Merritt Hawkins survey, the average wait time to be seen by a cardiology specialist in the nations’ capital is thirty-two days, compared to just over twenty-one days (the national average).

The VA Healthcare System and the Mission Act

​The closest system to universal healthcare coverage in American is the Veteran’s Affairs healthcare system. On June 06, 2019 the Mission Act was implemented into the VA Healthcare system and the private sector. This act allows many of the nine million people enrolled in the VA healthcare system to seek medical attention outside of V.A. hospitals.

It is the biggest change to the American medical healthcare system since the Affordable Care Act was passed. In theory, the Mission Act should enable veterans who were waiting thirty or more days for an appointment, to receive one in twenty or fewer days, with a goal of two weeks or less by 2020. The VA remains plagued by inefficiencies and inconsistency, however, and wait times remain often unacceptably long.

Impact of Electronic Consultations and Comprehension of Services

​There are two areas that are successfully decreasing healthcare wait times in the United States–electronic consultations and healthcare education campaigns. eConsults or eReferrals are secure platforms on which patients and providers can discuss minor health care concerns and needs for referrals. These advances, along with telehealth and other remote monitoring technologies, are helping reduce wait times and take the pressure off of doctors.

These simple fixes can help patients avoid additional visits to specialists and free up capacity in crowded health systems, reducing waiting times for others.

Healthcare educational campaigns are another resource that is working to reduce healthcare wait times. It helps patients understand when they should seek help through a provider (via a primary care facility or urgent care facility), request an eConsult, or visit the emergency room. Much more work is needed, however, to educate the public.

Wait Times and Healthcare Remain a Problem

Healthcare wait times are longer in the United States than is generally understood, and despite the amount of money we spend, both as a nation and as individuals, we are not getting good value for our money. The reasons for this are complex and not easily fixed, but understanding the depth of the issue and the changes that are making a difference can help make sense of the issue.

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