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Patients in Massachusetts finding doctors appointments harder to get, survey shows

In this file photo from 2021, physician assistant Sarah Vacca examines Amy Jewitt's daughter, Summer.
Karen Brown
/
NEPM
In this file photo from 2021, physician assistant Sarah Vacca examines Amy Jewitt's daughter, Summer.

A statewide health survey in Massachusetts shows that access to primary care has gone down since the pandemic began.

The nonprofit Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MHQP) asked about a quarter of a million patients about their experiences going to the doctor.

Many aspects were actually up since 2019, like communication and coordination of care. But there was a glaring exception: being able to actually get an appointment.

CEO Barbra Rabson of MHQP said that may come down to strains on primary care early in the pandemic, since most insurers only pay per visit or procedure.

“Because when patients didn't show up, they didn't get paid,” she said. “And so this was really devastating for many primary care practices.”

She said many practices lost clinicians during the pandemic - combined with the fact that primary care, which pays lower salaries than most other specialties, had already been losing doctors steadily. As a result, there are fewer appointment slots now.

“When you don't invest in primary care, you see exactly the problems that we're experiencing right now,” Rabson said. “Because if people can't get into primary care, they either don't go for care and they delay getting getting care, or they go to emergency rooms.”

While Massachusetts is known for high-quality health care, she said, most of the health care spending goes towards hospitals, and much less towards primary care and pediatrics, even though preventive care can save money down the line.

Rabson said her group supports pending state legislation that would encourage greater investment in primary care, as well as a payment method that relies less on sick visits and more on keeping patients healthy.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.