Universal Healthcare Doesn't Mean Waiting Longer to See a Doctor

A new report from the Commonwealth Fund shows that people in other industrialized nations get doctors' appointments faster than Americans do.
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(h.koppdelaney/flickr)

Opponents of healthcare reform have, historically, argued that we should be wary of imitating foreign healthcare systems because people in other countries have to wait longer to see the doctor. Cheaper, more universal care, the argument seems to be, comes with the tradeoff of slower care.

This is not necessarily true, according to new numbers from the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan organization that studies industrialized healthcare systems around the world.

The organization surveyed between 1,000 and 5,400 people in 11 industrialized nations. The first thing they found is fairly well-known: American healthcare is mind-bogglingly expensive, as compared to that of other Western democracies:

(Commonwealth Fund)

Americans are far more likely to experience a "cost-related" access issue or to spend more than $1,000 out of pocket than citizens of other countries.

But what's less talked-about is that we don't actually get better access to medical care for our money. People in many countries that spend far less on healthcare than the U.S. are more likely to say they can usually get a same-day or next-day appointment when they need it, and to say they can get after-hours treatment without going to the ER. This is true for countries that have single-payer systems, like the U.K. (though not Canada), and for many Western European countries that have multi-payer systems like ours.

(Commonwealth Fund)

The one access measure the U.S. performed slightly better on was in the ability to get specialist appointments within two months. However, more than half of all U.S. doctors' visits are paid to a primary care physician, and the most commonly cited reason is a cough, according to the CDC. And even so, people in Switzerland and the U.K. were both still more likely to say they waited four weeks or less for a specialist appointment than Americans were.

This is not to say that America's healthcare reform will alleviate wait times for primary care (in fact, just the opposite may occur.) But other countries have less of a disparity between specialist and primary care salaries, much cheaper medical school, and less paperwork requirements for doctors in GP positions—all factors that help incentivize more primary care physicians and, sadly, extend beyond the scope of the Affordable Care Act.

So much of the uproar over the recent insurance plan cancellation notices has been prompted by fears that the affected people will no longer be able to see the doctors they prefer or to get treated as quickly as they'd like. But compared to the rest of the Western world, that's already the reality for many Americans. This report is just a sign that some countries have found a way to not only insure more people, but to get them the care they need faster.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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