Patients’ patience: waiting costs us

Patient: n. an individual awaiting or under medical care and treatment

Patience: n. the quality of bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint; manifesting forbearance under provocation or strain

For years my ex had an internist who habitually ran an hour behind. No matter what time he arrived for his appointment he was seen an hour later. He spoke to the administrator about it, he chewed out the doc, and even threatened to bill him for the wait time (he was a lawyer, and had billable hours down!). Finally he found a new doc.

Princeton economist Alan Krueger wrote about this a couple of days ago:

…Time is money. So, although it doesn’t currently enter into our national statistics, the time that patients spend getting health care services should be reflected in the way we calculate America’s national health care expenditures.

Any student of Econ 101 knows that economists measure costs by opportunity costs, meaning everything that is given up to get something else. Time spent interacting with the medical system could be used for other activities, like work and leisure. Moreover, spending time getting medical care is not fun. This time should be counted as part of the cost of health care.

He suggests that we undervalue the cost of health care by about 11% by excluding the opportunity costs of waiting for care, which he calculates at about 847 million hours annually. Valuing the time at an average of $17.43 he says Americans spent the equivalent of $240 billion waiting around in 2007.

He says that if we’re going to modernize health care record-keeping, we should be including patient time in the equation:

Failing to take account of patient time leads us to exaggerate the productivity of the health care sector, and to understate the cost of health care. The time that patients spend seeking, receiving and paying for health care services is just as real as the dollars they spend for medical services.

I know scheduling is a constant challenge because emergencies do arise, but other industries have figured out a way to keep irregular systems rolling; why can’t physicians?


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