Opportunity Costs and Disparities in Time Spent Seeking Care in the United States

Kristin N. Ray, Amalavoyal V. Chari, John Engberg, Marnie Bertolet, and Ateev Mehrotra

In 2010, people in the US spent 1.1 billion hours seeking health care for themselves or for loved ones. That time was worth $52 billion.

October 2015

In 2010, people in America spent 1.1 billion hours seeking health care for themselves and for loved ones. This time was worth $52 billion, according to a study that measured how much time patients spend seeking care, calculated the total time costs to society, and analyzed the difference in time burden by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The work was supported by the California Health Care Foundation.

See an infographic about the study findings, as well as a video, below.

The research appears as two different articles in American Journal of Managed Care and JAMA Internal Medicine. Among the key findings:

  • The average total visit time for people seeking care for themselves, a child, or another adult was 121 minutes. That total includes 37 minutes of travel time and 84 minutes in the clinic. Of those 84 minutes, people met for 20 minutes with physicians. The rest of the time was spent waiting, interacting with nonphysician staff, or completing paperwork or billing.
  • The average opportunity cost per visit was $43, compared to an average out-of-pocket cost per visit of $32.
  • The time burden fell disproportionately on the disadvantaged. While all groups spent the same 20 minutes face-to-face with physicians, blacks and Hispanics spent approximately 25% longer than whites on increased travel, waiting, and administrative times. Lower-income groups and the unemployed also spent more time seeking care than their better-off counterparts.

It is important to consider time costs when evaluating new treatment and care delivery models designed to create higher-value, more patient-centered care and to reduce health care disparities. They noted that many initiatives underway might reduce the time-cost burden of health care. These include streamlining office visits; incorporating clinics into schools, community centers, and places of work; and using new models of care delivery, such as telemedicine visits, e-visits, and other Internet-powered medicine.

Hurry Up and Wait: Americans Spend 121 Minutes to See a Doctor for 20 Minutes