Recently, I was in an ICU waiting room with three other families—who were also waiting…and waiting. We began comparing notes. How long had your loved one been struggling with illness? What communications were healthcare providers providing to help you understand the condition, potential outcomes, and impact on quality of life?
As family members and friends who were simply there to advocate for loved ones, we reached a consensus during our sharing. Accessing healthcare today can be a real struggle. And we’re not talking about geography or demographics. Across systems and ZIP codes, care for even the seriously ill is not necessarily available when needed.
Case in point: Someone undergoes surgery and experiences complications. An infectious disease doctor is required, but the problem is, this specialist does not practice at the hospital. So, the patient is discharged with an appointment three months out to address a serious issue like a staph infection that impacts quality of life and could impede organs from properly working.
In another instance, a man suffers from a significant kidney stone and goes to the E.R. in pain. Removing it will require a procedure, and the hospital advises that given Covid-19 variants and limited bed space, it’s best for the patient to go home and make an outpatient appointment for the surgery. Only problem is, the next available is in three weeks. Until then, pain medications and extreme discomfort are a way of life.
Think about your own recent experiences trying to schedule an appointment with a specialist or your primary care provider. It’s July. The receptionist asks you, “Would you like an appointment on December 12th or we have an afternoon time available in January?”
Why the delays? What is creating a virtual roadblock to accessing timely care? Well, like other industries, there is a shortage of healthcare professionals. And individuals reluctant or unable to see their doctors in person during the pandemic or have procedures, are now returning to the system to obtain needed care.
This isn’t strictly a pandemic problem. The wait time issue has exacerbated over time. According to a Merritt Hawkens 2017 Survey of Physician Appointment Wait Times, scheduling a new patient physician appointment in 15 major metropolitan areas increased by 30% since 2014.
A 2022 Vermont report from the state’s Agency of Human Services revealed that residents wait an average of two months or longer to see a specialist. The data showed that dermatology and neurology patients wait the longest, more than three months.
All the while, as employers we are encouraging employees to schedule preventive visits with a primary care provider—get those well checks to minimize E.R. visits, contact their primary care provider to treat acute illness, and see specialists to manage chronic conditions before they become emergency care situations. If employees follow this advice, are they running into roadblocks? We’re guessing the answer is yes.
So, what can we do as employers given the current logjam of appointments in healthcare? Labor challenges, appointment demand—these are variables that can be managed but not overnight. What can we do now?
Rather than urging prevention and treatment, maybe we need to focus more closely on encouraging our team members to stay healthy. If our healthcare system is in a state where lack of timely access is a reality, then we need to take a hard look at our employee education and communications. Instead of emphasizing preventive care from a provider, maybe we need to be sending a strong message—wrapped with programs to support our employees—that we need to take preventive care into our own hands. Stress reduction, exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and socializing with friends and family are all proven to produce positive outcomes.
There’s no right answer. But it is right to consider whether our messaging as employers is aligned with what employees can reasonably achieve. We know that the most effective way to reduce healthcare costs, improve workplace productivity, offer work-life balance, and retain top talent is to create a culture of health. Tell us what you think. We look forward to hearing from you.
About Health Action Council
Health Action Council is a not-for-profit 501(c)(6) organization representing mid-and large-size employers that enhance human and economic health through thought leadership, innovative services, and collaboration. It provides value to its members by facilitating projects that improve the quality and moderate the cost of healthcare purchased by its members for their employees, dependents, and retirees. Health Action Council also collaborates with key stakeholders – health plans, physicians, hospitals, and the pharmaceutical industry – to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare in the community.