Efforts to stir up access to Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals have cut down on wait times for new patient appointments, according to a report.
In 2014, the average wait for a new VA appointment in primary care, dermatology, cardiology, or orthopedics was 22.5 days, compared with 18.7 days in private sector facilities (P=0.20). Although these wait times were statistically no different in general, there was a longer wait for an orthopedics appointment in the VA that year (23.9 days vs 9.9 days for private sector, P<0.001), noted David Shulkin, MD, former VA secretary under President Trump, and now at the University of Pennsylvania's Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and colleagues.
The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that wait times in 2017 favored VA medical centers (17.7 days vs 29.8 days for private sector facilities, P<0.001). This was observed for primary care, dermatology, and cardiology appointments -- but not orthopedics, which continued to produce appointment lags in the VA system (20.9 days vs 12.4 days, P=0.01), the authors stated.
“Although the results reflect positively on the VA, we intend to continue improving wait times, the accuracy of the data captured, and the transparency of reporting information to veterans and the public,” the researchers wrote.
Their study included VA medical centers in 15 major metropolitan areas and compared them with private sector facilities. Wait times were calculated differently based on VA records and secret shopper surveys, respectively, which was a limitation of the study, the team said.
Shulkin and colleagues found that VA wait times trended toward improvement in 11 of 15 regions, whereas private medical centers had significant increases in wait times in 12 of the 15.
Prompting the scrutiny over VA hospital wait times was a 2014 report showing that at least 40 veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA Health Care System in Arizona. Even worse, the wait times had apparently been deliberately manipulated to look better than they were.
“This incident damaged the VA’s credibility and created a public perception regarding the VA health care system’s inability to see patients in a timely manner,” Shulkin and co-authors said. “In response, the VA has worked to improve access, including primary care, mental health, and other specialty care services.”
Meanwhile, VA medical centers continue to suffer from staffing issues such as high turnover and employee vacancies in the tens of thousands.
The study authors noted a modest increase in the number of patients going to VA hospitals for the four services studied, although that number still stayed around five million per year.
From 2014 to 2017, patient satisfaction scores also increased by 1.4%, 3.0%, and 4.0% for specialty care, routine primary care, and urgent primary care, respectively (P<0.05 for all).
Another problem with the methodology of the study was that it failed to address how easily established patients could obtain return appointments, noted an accompanying editorial by Peter Kaboli, MD, MS, of Iowa City Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, and Stephan Fihn, MD, MPH, of the University of Washington in Seattle and JAMA Network Open‘s deputy editor.
Furthermore, they pointed out, a patient returning for a 6-month follow-up visit may show up in the scheduling system as having a long delay.
“As this study highlights, measuring access to healthcare remains dodgy. Even so, the seven million veterans who receive care from the VA seem able to obtain routine and urgent care in a time frame that is on par for other Americans despite increasing demand, although there are and always will be exceptions,” Kaboli and Fihn noted.
“As resources in the VA are increasingly diverted to purchase care in the community, it remains to be seen if access to healthcare services can be maintained while access in the private sector continues to deteriorate,” they continued, adding that virtual care may be one way to improve access given the non-infinite supply of face-to-face appointments.
Penn and coauthors and Kaboli reported having no conflicts of interest.
Fihn is Deputy Editor of JAMA Network Open.