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By Diana Diamond

Absurdly long waits for doctors' appointments are an escalating health care problem

Uploaded: Apr 19, 2022

I don’t know whether I should laugh out loud as I think about the iabsurdly long waits we now encounter in getting a doctor’s appointment -- or bury my head in my hands and simply sob away.

“We are now accepting appointments for October. Do you prefer morning or afternoon after the 14th?” This is a frequent refrain I hear when trying to get an appointment. “But this is April 19th! That’s six months away!”

“I know,” the voice replies. “Our first opening is Oct. 14 at 4:45 p.m. Will that work? If not, we have one the 21st at 8 a.m. Or you could look for one in November. We are half-filled already for that month.”

No, those are not made-up responses. And the inordinate wait is not acceptable. But . . .

I can’t do anything about it except ask to be put on a waiting list -- which I did several times but only got called once fin the late morning or an opening in Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Fremont office early that afternoon.

Lots of people complain about the delays – friends, neighbors, even my physicians and their assistants. It is a local problem – at PAMF and at Stanford clinics. My daughter-in-law in Seattle has complained about long delays in seeing her physician, as has my best friend now living in Kentucky, my college roommate outside Boston, and more.

While I hesitate relating my tale of waits, I will today use my own experiences as an example of what is to me an escalating problem.

My GP referred me to the Stanford Pain Clinic in Redwood City for a back pain, suggesting there might be a long wait for an appointment. There was. Six months. The doctor I saw was great, and she suggested an MRI. I asked her assistant for a referral to PAMF in Palo Alto, since it was more convenient. She inadvertently referred me to the Newark office. I called and asked the scheduling clerk to change it to Palo Alto and she said she didn’t see on the sheet the doctor permitting an outside Redwood City appointment. I told her the physician referred me to Newark, and that’s outside; she said she didn’t see it on my sheet and could not do it. Her reasoning resulted in a bit of consternation.

The next day I called again; the staffer on duty said she would make the transfer. Then the following day I got a call from the same appointments desk saying she understood I wanted to transfer my MRI appointment to Palo Alto. I told her the appointments yesterday said she did that. No she didn’t, was the reply.

When I was finally referred on Jan. 3 to PAMF in Palo Alto, I called for an MRI appointment. The earliest? Jan. 30. I called for a follow-up appointment after my MRI test. I got one a month later. My physician wanted to undergo a procedure. Earliest date? May 24.

Need I say more about delays?

Second example: On Jan. 17 I woke up dizzy. I talked to my GP and she said I need an appointment with a neurologist. Earliest appointment at the PA, Redwood City, Mountain View or Fremont office was April 25. I’ve been dizzy every day since that January morning, But as much as I ask, I am told the office is booked up until ….

WHY? Why all these delays I kept on asking the physicians and their staff. I received six not-so-certain answers:
a) There is a shortage of doctors in the area, particularly GPs.
b) More and more patients want appointments, particularly because many were reluctant to come to the clinic during the pandemic.
c) PAMF is given a budget each year by Sutter Health, its owner, and it is up to each clinic to allocate the budget money. Except there’s not a surplus to go out and hire new physicians. The CEOs supposedly could cut salaries of other physicians, but that sure isn’t good for MD morale.
d) It’s hard to attract new physicians to the area because living costs are so high. True.
e) More people have insurance now because of the Affordable Care Act, so the demand is higher.
f) Sutter has a reputation of being a bottom-line operation, where profit and loss become determinant considerations in running their business.

So that brings me to figuring out Sutter’s logic. If there are a lot of patients who want to go to PAMF or to Stanford, why not try hard to hire more, perhaps by offering higher salaries? It might work, because California, with its wonderful weather, is a great place to work, especially here in Silicon Valley.

Don’t more patients mean more money coming into Sutter? Last year the health organization had financial problems; this year it is faring better.

And last – but really first—all these health organizations are in the business of helping those who are sick and ailing. Do they have a moral responsibility to provide quality health care to all of their patients – without extremely long waits? I would think so.