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Massachusetts 5-year-old health reform: Patient access to primary care remains a challenge
By Insure.com staff

Patients in Massachusetts face long wait times to get appointments with their physicians, and more than half of primary-care practices don't take new patients, according to a recent survey about patient access to health care by the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Trends in Massachusetts are watched closely because that state passed its own version of health care reform, signed into law by former Gov. Mitt Romney, five years ago.

The society released its annual Physician Workforce Study May 9 as hundreds of physicians gathered to meet with legislators at Doctors Day at the State House.

"Massachusetts has made great strides in securing insurance coverage for its citizens, but insurance coverage doesn't equal access to care," Dr. Alice Coombs, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a press statement. "We still have much work to do to reduce wait times and widen access. This has important implications for health care cost control, as difficulty or delay with routine access to care leads people to seek other options, such as the emergency room, which is much more costly."

Coombs cited a survey released in April by the American College of Emergency Physicians that showed emergency room usage in the state has risen, due in part to physician shortages.

Access to medical care by the numbers

The medical society's survey on access to care showed 51 percent of internists and 53 percent of family physicians are not accepting new patients, close to last year's results. The high percentage of practices closed to new patients reflects a severe shortage of primary-care physicians, the society said.

That shortage is a nationwide trend. The American College of Physicians warned five years ago that primary care was "on the verge of collapse" because too few medical students were choosing the field.

The average wait time for an appointment for internal medicine is 48 days, five days shorter than last year, and the average wait time for family medicine is 36 days, up seven days from a year ago. The average wait time for pediatricians is 24 days, the same as last year. Seventy-three percent of pediatricians are accepting new patients.

All four specialties surveyed reported longer wait times than last year: gastroenterologists, 43 days, up from 36 days; obstetricians/gynecologists, 41 days, up from 34 days; orthopedic surgeons, 26 days, up from 17 days; and cardiology, 28 days, up from 26 days.

New patients have an easier time getting appointments with specialists than with primary-care doctors. Eighty-two percent of cardiologists, 85 percent of obstetricians/ gynecologists, 95 percent of gastroenterologists, and 97 percent of orthopedic surgeons accept new patients.

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