Jefferson University Hospital in Center City (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

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The day before another medical school exam, I was off for a study day, something that doesn’t come around often. So instead of spending the morning taking practice tests, I was in a doctor’s office for an annual physical that was several years overdue. 

I sat in the waiting room thinking about how many months it took me to get this appointment — my first was rescheduled due to provider illness — and how generally difficult it is to get a doctor’s visit. 

As an MD student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, I am in a setting daily where we preach how important it is to keep up to date on preventative care and follow up with specialists when needed. Yet I also help schedule Jefferson Health patients for appointments after discharge, often staying on the phone over 30 minutes to get it done. It made me wonder how long it usually takes patients trying to make these appointments for themselves. 

A recent study answers that question: It takes an average of 26 days to schedule a new patient physician appointment in the largest U.S. cities, according to the latest edition of an annual survey by recruiting/consulting firms AMN Healthcare and Merritt Hawkins. That’s the longest average wait time since the survey started nearly two decades ago.

Philadelphia did especially poorly on OB/GYN appointments, where patients experienced an average wait time of 56 days, the longest of all 15 cities. 

Nearly 1 in 5 Philadelphians didn’t have a primary care provider in 2018, per a study by the city Department of Health. The issue was more acute among the Hispanic or Latino population, where close to a third of residents said they didn’t have a family  doctor. People without a primary care provider are more likely to fall into chronic illnesses that end up costing everyone more time and money.

Some have suggested solutions like more reminders to make primary care appointments, and transportation assistance when they are made. But for those in school and working, time itself may be the main limiting factor. 

In Philly, part of the issue is supply; the city has just one primary care provider for every 1,243 residents, according to the Health Department study.

With four major medical universities here — Jefferson, Temple, Penn, and Drexel — plus PCOM, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine — how can we face such a shortage? 

Encouraging more career choices in primary care may help, as could initiatives to keep physicians in the area post-education. But to give Philadelphia more capable medical professionals who aren’t totally burned out, these medical professionals (and professionals in training) also need better access to preventive care and leave for family care. 

The American Medical Association has been advocating for better profession-wide leave standards. Other cities and workplaces could follow in the model of the City of Philadelphia, which guarantees paid sick leave to certain workers.  

As health care professionals, we need to be supporting and encouraging the public and private policy changes that expand individual access to care, and the associated time that is needed. 

Kelly McGuigan holds a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Drexel University and is currently a student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College in the class of 2024. She is planning to apply for family medicine residency, with the goal of having a future practice in Philadelphia. 

This story has been updated to include mention of PCOM, a well-respected osteopathic college serving a student body of around 2,000.

Kelly McGuigan holds a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Drexel University and is currently a student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College in the class of 2024. She is planning to apply for...