The Waiting Game

Published: May. 3, 2018 at 7:59 AM EDT
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The UVM Medical Center has created a task force to address the ongoing issue of wait times for some procedures. The effort comes after many patients have complained about the difficulty of getting an appointment in a timely matter.

Sandy Hawkes is a local art teacher who's been out of work since December. After being diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, she says doctors still don't know what's wrong with her.

Reporter Melissa Sheketoff: So you went three months before even knowing if something was wrong with you?

Sandy Hawkes: Yeah, it definitely took that long.

A pulmonology appointment may be the answer, but that means Hawkes has to wait until September for the next opening.

It turns out her problem isn't uncommon. Dozens of WCAX viewers responded on Facebook that they have faced similar challenges.

Wait times for patients have troubled state health care regulators for decades. Green Mountain Care Board Chair Kevin Mullin says the biggest problem is recruiting doctors to the state and filling many open positions throughout the network. He says the state needs to do a better job retaining local graduates as future health care providers.

"Where someone goes to school often determines where they end up staying and practicing for the vast majority of their career," Mullin said. "Sometimes it's the very rural nature of Vermont that creates problem for access. You can't get every line of specialty in the Northeast Kingdom for example."

The Green Mountain Care Board is working to help retain those students after graduation by taking steps including figuring out how the state can help pay off student loans.

Dr. James Ulager is a primary care doctor through UVM and was one of the people picked to join the UVM task force when it was created back in the fall of 2017. The team is made up of about 15 people network-wide and is made up of senior leadership at the hospital, primary care providers, specialty providers, community physicians and patients.

The team is focused on looking at efficiency and addressing the quality of patient care, but Ulager believes in some instances patients could get the answers they need faster without a face-to-face appointment by asking specialists a specific question. "I could send a question electronically and within two business days we'd have an answer," he said. "There's a few other systems that have set that up and I'd like to do that."

The task force plans to meet with the Green Mountain Care Board in June to see if there has been any progress since its creation in September.