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Sick of the wait?

New patients face long wait to see doctor

Franklin County has the longest average wait time for new patients to get non-emergency appointments with doctors in family medicine, according to an annual survey recently released by the Massachusetts Medical Society.

But the survey of 1,137 doctor’s offices statewide also shows Franklin County as having more reasonable wait times — an average of 34 days — when it comes to routine visits to internists, the other common category of primary care physicians.

The survey also pointed out that about half of the state’s primary care practices are closed to new patients. In Franklin County, 50 percent of family medicine practices and only 17 percent of internal medicine practices say they are accepting new patients.

The survey dealt only with new patients and only with nonemergency visits.

The average wait time for nonemergency appointments varied widely by region. In Boston, for example, the average wait time for family medicine was just 16 days, compared to more than three months here.

“There are very few internists left,” said Dr. Joseph J. Viadero of Connecticut River Internists, an officer with the Franklin District Medical Society.

He said there’s a shortage of family practitioners also in the area, and the handful of doctors with either focus tends to be in their 50s and 60s.

“It’s a big crisis here. There aren’t that many of us around.”

When it comes to accepting new patients, Viadero said he hasn’t been seeing new patients for years, except for family members of patients or to meet contractual obligations with certain insurers. Otherwise, he said, new patients are seen by what he called “physician extenders” — physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners.

“I don’t know what it is,” he added. “Northampton doesn’t have the same problem we do.”

But Dr. Gerda Maissel, Baystate Franklin Medical Center’s chief medical officer, said that with the addition of Baystate’s medical practices on Sanderson Street in Greenfield and on Route 116 in South Deerfield, the availability of primary care has improved.

This includes two family practice and two internal medicine doctors at Greenfield Family Medicine and one internist at Deerfield Adult Medicine, all added over the past couple of years, along with nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Since Maissel arrived three years ago, Greenfield Family Medicine “has grown dramatically in that time. We’ve been able to offer a lot more availability of primary care than we did before. At Greenfield and Deerfield, I’ve recruited a lot of folks in, so it’s a lot better than it was.”

The wait for new patient, nonemergency visits as of last month was two days in Greenfield and eight days in Deerfield, said Maisel, who agreed that overall, there’s a primary care shortage in the Pioneer Valley, in Massachusetts and across the country. But she added, “We’re feeling like we’re in a lot better shape.”

The paucity of specialists like urologists or gastroenterologists locally is even more dramatic, with six in either category in Northampton and none in Franklin County, Viadero said.

The Mass Medical survey shows that the average wait to see a gastroenterologist in Franklin County is 213 days — about seven months, and the longest wait anywhere in the state.

“While we’ve achieved success in securing insurance coverage for nearly all of our residents, coverage doesn’t guarantee access to care,” said Dr. Ronald Dunlap, the organization’s president. “The concern is that limited and delayed access can lead to undesirable results, as people will seek more costly care at emergency rooms, delay care too long, or not seek care at all,” he said.

Although the statewide average for pediatric practices accepting new patients was 70 percent, in Franklin County it’s only 50 percent.

According to Viadero, the difference between internists and family care physicians is based on what’s included in their residency training, so both are trained to deal with many general practice areas.

All of the family physicians and internists responding to the survey in Franklin County accept both Medicare and MassHealth, while only 83 percent of pediatricians were recorded as accepting MassHealth.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

On the Web: www.massmed.org/patientaccess

You can reach Richie Davis at:
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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