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Study Shows We Experience Racial Inequality in the Doctor's Waiting Room

Photograph by Twenty20

If you're African-American or Hispanic, you can expect to wait longer to see the doctor than your white counterparts, according to a new study from JAMA Internal Medicine.

We already know Latinos and African-Americans suffer disproportionately from asthma, mental health issues, chronic disease, obesity and other health issues. Many racial and socioeconomic disparities have been documented that contribute as factors; we know also that sometimes timeliness of medical intervention is a key factor in quality of care when it comes to positive outcomes for the patient.

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Access to quality care is often an issue, and researchers have now drawn a new link that may be part of the cause for inequities: how long it takes for a person to see a healthcare professional — from the time it takes to get to the doctor, the time spent in the waiting room, time spent with the doctor, and other factors such as time spent with administrative interactions such as calling about billing, or filling out paperwork — also comes into play.

In the study, time spent face-to-face with a doctor or medical provider is uniform across all races and ethnic groups at about 20 minutes, indicating that non-whites wait much longer to see the doctor. The amount of total time to seek medical care, in fact, is not just higher for waiting room times.

According to the study, which used data collected from 2005 to 2013, African-American and Hispanic patients also spent almost 10 minutes longer to travel to appointments than other patients. And, as the old saying goes, time is money. In 2010, researchers say that patients across all races and ethnicities lost about $52 billion in opportunity costs while getting medical care. Non-Hispanic whites reported spending a total of 117 minutes seeking medical care, whereas African-American patients spent a total of about 146 minutes. Hispanic patients, who fared worst of all, spent about 150 total minutes seeking medical care.

Alexander Green, associate director of the disparities solution center at Massachusetts General Hospital told the Washington Post that the kinds of clinics where patients seek treatment can also play a role in how long they wait to see a doctor. And, Green said, unconscious bias on the part of the medical provider or staff can also sometimes play a role in how long a patient waits.

"Wait times are something very subjective, in that it could be any number of reasons it might seem justified in the mind of a provider or a staff member to have this person waiting a little bit longer: 'I know this person better and I'll squeeze them in first,' or being concerned the visit is going to take longer," Green told the Post.

The age groups in the study that had the longest total time (including travel, wait, and time spent with the doctor) were ages 45-64, at an average of 132 minutes, and ages 25-44, at an average of 124 minutes. And those who were uneducated, unemployed or not in the workforce, or among the lowest-paid in the workforce, also tended to have disproportionately longer total time spent seeking medical care.

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