Mar 12, 2009

How much time did you spend last year in waiting rooms?

Using the American Time Use Survey, I calculate that Americans age 15 and older collectively spent 847 million hours waiting for medical services to be provided in 2007. That’s a lot of bills to be delivered to health care providers.

Three percent of Americans traveled from their home to receive health care on any given day in 2007. The corresponding figures are 5 percent for women and 2 percent for men.

If you count health care-related activities writ large – including time traveling to a doctor, waiting to see a doctor, being examined and treated, taking medication, obtaining medical care for others, and paying bills – the average American spent 1.1 hours a week obtaining health care in 2007.

Not surprisingly, those over age 60 spent twice as much time obtaining medical care, on average, than did those age 15 to 60. Women spent about 70 percent more time on health care activities than men.

If we value all people’s time at the average hourly wage of production and nonsupervisory workers ($17.43 in 2007), Americans spent the equivalent of $240 billion on health care in 2007.

Put another way, omitting patients’ time caused national health care expenditures to be undercounted by 11 percent in 2007.

- A Hidden Cost of Health Care, Alan B. Krueger

Add to this that the amount of time we spend waiting to receive health care increases even as the cost of health care increases, and what you've got on your hands is a big, expensive mess.

I'm not exactly sure how this is a "hidden" cost of healthcare. Every time I have to mark against my sick time, or even my vacation time, because I had a dentist or doctor appointment and I have to take an additional hour here and there for time spent sitting in the waiting room, it's a cost that certainly isn't hidden from me. Since October I have had some 10 dentist visits to have a crown filled, a tooth pulled, a bone graft -- and will have several more once they put in the post and crown over the coming months. In addition to using all of my sick time last year, I also went through two of my five days of vacation time so that I could make it to all of my appointments. One more dentist appointment and I would have had my paycheck cut at the end of the year.

I agree that doctors should do more to monitor and improve wait times for their patients, but...what more? If we do keep medical records and doctors are already getting patients through the system as quickly as possible, what to do with all of those lost hours and all of that lost time or money? Compensate patients for time wasted in waiting rooms? Offer tax credits? What?


  1. I've been lucky enough to be on both ends of healthcare already and I have to say that it still sucks to wait, even when I know that the doctor in the back isn't just dicking around. Physicians and nurses have to deal with calls from patients and insurance companies, as well as sending faxes and writing letters to those companies just to re-authorize certain prescriptions. In the office I shadow in, I know they must cram in appointments early on to make sure they make up for no-shows and then leave a required amount of time in the afternoon for walk-ins who have mid-range emergencies.
    I don't know anything about economics, so I would have no idea how to deal with this problem! I DO know that I read an article recently in the NY Times that kind of upset me - it suggested that physicians should pay their patients for the time they have to spend away from their jobs in lost wages, etc. Honestly, that's ridiculous. I'm sure some doctors do waste time, but most do not intentionally keep people waiting and surely should not be responsible for the time you take out of a job you may have to come to them for advice on your medical problem. Yeesh.

  2. Ellyyyyyssseeeee!!!!

    And, I don't really think having doctors pay their patients to wait would really solve any problems. That cost would just be added on someplace else, and the customer would end up paying for it anyhow. Plus, I think you're correct when you say most doctors can't help it when things back up. I *do* think some of the larger clinics schedule appointments too close together (something my neurologist complained of--she said that's why she went into private practice) in an effort to see more people in a day/make more money. But for the most part...I think that because there has been an increase in treatable illness, you see a lot more people going to doctors, a lot more regularly. Maybe there just aren't enough doctors for all the problems.

    I think employers should be required to give more sick time. I get four days for the entire year, and only acquire one per quarter, so anything over what I've accumulated in that particular quarter counts as vacation time. It would be great if I knew I could go to the doctor and wouldn't be paying for it out of my own pocket (again) for missing work later.