The health-care reform debate is in full roar with the arrival of Michael Moore's documentary Sicko, which compares the U.S. system unfavorably with single-payer systems around the world. Critics of the film are quick to trot out a common defense of the American way: For all its problems, they say, U.S. patients at least don't have to endure the endless waits for medical care endemic to government-run systems. The lobbying group America's Health Insurance Plans spells it out in a rebuttal to Sicko: "The American people do not support a government takeover of the entire health-care system because they know that means long waits for rationed care."
In reality, both data and anecdotes show that the American people are already waiting as long or longer than patients living with universal health-care systems. Take Susan M., a 54-year-old human resources executive in New York City. She faithfully makes an appointment for a mammogram every April, knowing the wait will be at least six weeks. She went in for her routine screening at the end of May, then had another because the first wasn't clear. That second X-ray showed an abnormality, and the doctor wanted to perform a needle biopsy, an outpatient procedure. His first available date: mid-August. "I completely freaked out," Susan says. "I couldn't imagine spending the summer with this hanging over my head." After many calls to five different facilities, she found a clinic that agreed to read her existing mammograms on June 25 and promised to schedule a follow-up MRI and biopsy if needed within 10 days. A full month had passed since the first suspicious X-rays. Ultimately, she was told the abnormality was nothing to worry about, but she should have another mammogram in six months. Taking no chances, she made an appointment on the spot. "The system is clearly broken," she laments.
It's not just broken for breast exams. If you find a suspicious-looking mole and want to see a dermatologist, you can expect an average wait of 38 days in the U.S., and up to 73 days if you live in Boston, according to researchers at the University of California at San Francisco who studied the matter. Got a knee injury? A 2004 survey by medical recruitment firm Merritt, Hawkins & Associates found the average time needed to see an orthopedic surgeon ranges from 8 days in Atlanta to 43 days in Los Angeles. Nationwide, the average is 17 days. "Waiting is definitely a problem in the U.S., especially for basic care," says Karen Davis, president of the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund, which studies health-care policy.
All this time spent "queuing," as other nations call it, stems from too much demand and too little supply. Only one-third of U.S. doctors are general practitioners, compared with half in most European countries. On top of that, only 40% of U.S. doctors have arrangements for after-hours care, vs. 75% in the rest of the industrialized world. Consequently, some 26% of U.S. adults in one survey went to an emergency room in the past two years because they couldn't get in to see their regular doctor, a significantly higher rate than in other countries.
There is no systemized collection of data on wait times in the U.S. That makes it difficult to draw comparisons with countries that have national health systems, where wait times are not only tracked but made public. However, a 2005 survey by the Commonwealth Fund of sick adults in six nations found that only 47% of U.S. patients could get a same- or next-day appointment for a medical problem, worse than every other country except Canada.
The Commonwealth survey did find that U.S. patients had the second-shortest wait times if they wished to see a specialist or have nonemergency surgery, such as a hip replacement or cataract operation (Germany, which has national health care, came in first on both measures). But Gerard F. Anderson, a health policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, says doctors in countries where there are lengthy queues for elective surgeries put at-risk patients on the list long before their need is critical. "Their wait might be uncomfortable, but it makes very little clinical difference," he says.
The Commonwealth study did find one area where the U.S. was first by a wide margin: 51% of sick Americans surveyed did not visit a doctor, get a needed test, or fill a prescription within the past two years because of cost. No other country came close.
Few solutions have been proposed for lengthy waits in the U.S., in part, say policy experts, because the problem is rarely acknowledged. But the market is beginning to address the issue with the rise of walk-in medical clinics. Hundreds have sprung up in CVS, Wal-Mart (WMT ), Pathmark, (PTMK ) and other stores—so many that the American Medical Assn. just adopted a resolution urging state and federal agencies to investigate such clinics as a conflict of interest if housed in stores with pharmacies. These retail clinics promise rapid care for minor medical problems, usually getting patients in and out in 30 minutes. The slogan for CVS's Minute Clinics says it all: "You're sick. We're quick."
By Catherine Arnst