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Why is it so hard to get a doctor's appointment in Massachusetts?

Why is it so hard to get a doctor's appointment?
Why is it so hard to get a doctor's appointment? 04:22

BOSTON - It's cold and flu season, the hardest time of the year to stay healthy. It's also never been harder trying to find a doctor in Massachusetts. If you've been having trouble, you're not alone.

"A lot of times people are coming to our urgent care for things that would be better suited and better dealt with in a primary care office, but they don't have any other options, so they're going to urgent care or they're going to emergency rooms and it's just creating a backlog throughout the entire system," said WBZ-TV's Dr. Mallika Marshall.

Long waits for doctor's appointments

We asked viewers to share their stories and some of the responses we got were jaw-dropping.

"An overdue physical I had to reschedule from December 2023 (due to an injury) was rescheduled to January 2025!! I thought it was a mistake!" wrote Jennifer on Facebook.

"I was put on a waitlist at Brigham and Women's Center for Women's Health. It's two years long!!" wrote Christina on Facebook.

The issue even hits close to home at WBZ. Recent college graduate Anna, whose own mother works at the station, has been trying to get a primary care physician for months.

"I do have a couple of appointments set up but they're not until April and June. So we'll see if they end up working out," Anna said.

Why is the wait for a doctor's appointment so long?

"It is a very complicated answer to a very complicated issue," said Dr. Jose Figueroa of the Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health.

He said there are huge issues on the supply side. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there were fewer than 120,000 physicians in family medicine in 2021. That's only 12.4% of active physicians, down from about 87% in the 1930s. And the problem isn't getting better.

"In recent years, we've had more primary care doctors leave the profession because they have retired. We have an aging primary care workforce and many of them left during the pandemic," Figueroa told WBZ.

Primary care doctors get paid less than specialists

Just as troubling, they're not being replaced. Figueroa points to fewer students entering medical school for several reasons:

  • Medical school is expensive. Students are taking on a huge financial burden and are being left with mountains of debt.
  • Primary care is exceptionally challenging. Physicians have to know a lot about a lot, more than a specialist, who will often make a lot more money.

"You get paid less to be a primary care physician. There is some data to suggest that there's hundreds of thousands of dollars difference if you choose primary care over a specialty care," said Figueroa.

Too much paperwork for doctors

Understand, it's not that the doctors don't WANT to see you, it's that they just CAN'T. Dr. Eric Dickson, President and CEO of UMass Memorial Health, said American doctors are being buried under piles of paperwork.

"The excessive documentation, the pre-authorizations, the denials that are coming, and that starts with insurance reform," said Dickson.

The Journal of the American Medical Association found American doctors had more administrative burden than any other high-income country. The solutions will take time, and investment.

"You have to take some of the administrative burden from them," said Dickson.

"Not just having one person be your primary care doctor but having a team be responsible for your primary care needs," added Figueroa.

What should you do while you wait?

Those things may work down the road, but they won't help people like Anna right now. The best advice? Follow the doctor's orders.

"Cast a wide net. You may not get your pick of providers in the beginning. What you want to do is get your foot in the door and then down the road you might be able to switch providers," said Dr. Marshall.

If you have a question you'd like us to look into, please email  

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