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Wait Times To See A Doctor Have Surged Since Pandemic In US—But It’s Worse In Countries With Universal Healthcare

By Hannah Leah··  9 min read
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There are people who almost never see a doctor, and then there are those of us who need healthcare regularly, and they marry each other.

For those of us who rely on medical care, the pandemic has affected us in more ways than just Covid-19. Getting in with a doctor has felt nearly impossible. But are we better off than other countries?

I never thought much about insurance, the healthcare system, or how policies can affect us day to day. I have been dealing with autoimmune-related health issues for years, and finding a diagnosis has been difficult, but getting an appointment with a doctor wasn’t extremely hard – until the pandemic. 

My Six Hour ER Visit with No Treatment

In the beginning of 2019, my throat became swollen. I saw an ENT specialist who then referred me to a gastroenterologist, suspecting that my throat issue was caused by acid reflux. The GI doctor performed a surgical dilation, but within months, the swelling came back. Fast forward to today, I am still searching for the root cause of the swelling, but I cannot get in with my own specialists for months at a time. 

The swelling increased, and one day, after trying to see my doctor to address it, they told me to go to the ER, as they couldn’t get me in. I sat in the hallway of the ER for six hours, and after an X-ray, I was sent home with no treatment, just orders to follow up with my doctor (who is the one who sent me to the ER in the first place). The ER nurses and doctors were overwhelmed, frustrated, and exhausted trying to treat all of these people. Many of the patients sitting near me were there for the same reason – their doctor sent them. 

Is the American Healthcare System Better Than Socialized Medicine?

I had always heard that the wait time in countries with universal healthcare is so long that many patients don’t end up getting treatment in time. But after sitting in the ER hallway all day with no treatment, and still to this day not finding a doctor who can diagnose or treat me, I wondered if our own healthcare system is doing any better. I researched some statistics, and it turns out the United States is in much better shape than places with socialized medicine. 

The average wait time to see a specialist in the United States is anywhere from 5 to 11 weeks. This may seem long (especially for those of us who have health issues), but the wait time is much longer in countries with socialized medicine. Canada is our neighboring country with universal healthcare, and the wait for medical treatment is extensive there. The Fraser Institute reports, “Specialist physicians surveyed report a median waiting time of 25.6 weeks between referral from a general practitioner and receipt of treatment – longer than the wait of 22.6 weeks reported in 2020.” The survey also stated that depending on the province and specialist type, the wait can vary, “Ontario reports the shortest total wait – 18.5 weeks – while Nova Scotia reports the longest – 53.2 weeks.”

The average wait time to see a specialist in the United States is anywhere from 5 to 11 weeks. 

Pre-pandemic, wait times were much shorter in all countries, with America still having shorter wait times. In a study in 2017, the wait to see a doctor averaged 24 days in the United States. And in a Canadian 2014 study, out of 770 consultation referrals to specialists, 36.4% of those got no response from the specialists. Canada is, of course, not the only country with universal healthcare. 

Britain is another place where they have socialized healthcare, and even pre-pandemic, people were waiting several months for treatment. In a 2019 study, The Royal College of Surgeons of England reported, “NHS hospitals continue to struggle to reduce long waiting lists which include over 220,000 patients that have been waiting more than six months for treatment, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has warned. There were also over 36,000 patients waiting more than nine months for treatment.” 

The Pandemic’s Effect on Wait Times

There are different reasons for the wait times increasing after the Covid-19 pandemic. One being the staffing shortage. When the world shut down, and people were forced to stay in their homes, many people were laid off from their jobs, offered early retirement, or furloughed. Once it was time for businesses to reopen, and people could go out again, many people were receiving more money on unemployment than at their previous job. There was little incentive to go back to work. For people who decided to return to work, many of them wanted to work from home. 

To add to the staffing shortage, many healthcare workers were being required to get the Covid vaccines. In many places, without the vaccines, they weren’t allowed to continue working at their jobs. Thousands of workers left their jobs or were let go for this reason. And after losing so much staff as a result of the vaccine mandate, the healthcare workers that were left had the burden of picking up the slack. 

These things left the healthcare system in a panic, because the hospitals were being flooded with patients, but there were few people to work. Along with this, medical specialists had to postpone elective surgeries during lockdowns, so when these things could continue again, they had their previous patients plus new patients to get in. Adding the staffing shortage to this issue made the wait longer, as there were not enough healthcare workers to treat the load of patients. 

Having medical insurance in our country as opposed to socialized healthcare provides a profit incentive for our system. Though the wait times are still longer compared to before the pandemic, this type of system works more efficiently than universal healthcare because there is profit involved. “Healthcare for all” sounds nice, but it isn’t what it seems, and other countries are the perfect display of what things would be like if we chose that system. 

Debunking Common Misconceptions about Universal Healthcare

“Free Healthcare for All People.” 

I think most of us believe that everyone deserves healthcare. The debate isn’t over who deserves it. But “free” is never free. In countries with universal healthcare, taxes are double or triple what we pay. These kinds of taxes would be devastating for middle- or lower-class Americans. Canadians, for example, pay up to 51% higher in taxes than Americans. The Heritage Foundation states, “These extra taxes are largely driven by government health care costs. Despite this tax burden, government rationing via ‘global budgets’ leaves Canadians to face long waiting lists, shortages of equipment, outdated drugs, and endemic staff shortages." Click here to read about some of the countries with the highest tax rates; these places have universal healthcare. 

Canadians pay up to 51% higher in taxes than Americans, largely to cover healthcare costs.

Also, an important thing to note, no one in the United States is denied healthcare. Anyone can walk into the emergency room or a healthcare clinic and receive medical treatment, no matter their insurance or lack of it. The difference is, the medical costs are extremely expensive for those without insurance. It’s a major misconception that if you don’t have insurance, you’re denied healthcare. There are even hospitals and health centers that provide free care or care with sliding fees based on your income. Find a center here.

“Free Healthcare = the Same Standard of Care.” 

Low-quality care is a substantial issue in countries with universal healthcare. There are trade-offs to having free healthcare. It all goes back to profit. With a low profit incentive, there is less money put into the system for all the equipment and supplies that are needed. This leads to cheaper quality material, which in some countries means unsanitary and reused equipment, and less access to life-saving medical treatment such as cancer and disease treatment. That is why so many people come to America for life-saving treatment. 

This also means that fewer people will go to school to become a healthcare provider, and we will have a decrease in nurses and physicians. The World Health Organization (WHO) states, “In some countries, challenges in universal access to health workers may also result from the lack of capacity by the public sector to absorb the supply of health workers due to budgetary constraints.”

“It Works for Other Countries.”

Look up the healthcare statistics for any country providing free national healthcare, and you’ll see that there are issues. The issues previously stated are prime examples of these countries. Long wait time, lower quality care, fewer types of treatment for patients with cancer or terminal diseases, higher taxes, etc.  

America Doesn’t Have It All Together

There are obviously still issues with our healthcare system. I am the first person to admit that I’m not completely satisfied with it. And it’s no secret that many Americans struggle to pay for insurance or out-of-pocket costs. But are we willing to accept the trade-offs that come with socialized medicine? We have access to some of the best medical treatments, especially for those with terminal illness. Healthcare reform is something that many Americans are open to, but not at the cost of the quality of care. 

Closing Thoughts

Waiting to receive medical care after experiencing a life-altering pandemic is scary, but there is hope for our country because we have some of the highest trained medical professionals. We are blessed as Americans that we don’t have to wait as long as those in other countries for treatment. If anything, the pandemic made us all re-evaluate different things in life. It has the potential to divide us if we let it, but it could also have the potential to bring us together to find new ways to provide even better healthcare. I know it made me think about things I never cared about before. I hope that one day we can find the best solution for all people to receive healthcare that is affordable but still retains the quality of care that we have in our country. 

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