PITTSFIELD - Patients in the Berkshires wait longer to see a family care doctor for non-emergency appointments than in other regions of the state, according to an annual patient access study by the Massachusetts Medical Society.
Statewide, the annual survey released this week found that roughly half of the state's primary care practices are closed to new patients and wait times to see a primary care physician remain long.
The statewide average wait time for a non-emergency appointment to see a family care doctor is 39 days, but in the Berkshires it is 102, according to the survey.
The wait period prompts concerns that patients might delay the care they need or resort to heading to emergency rooms instead of a more thorough primary care physician's checkup, according to Dr. Basil Michaels, president of the Berkshire district of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
But Michaels said progress is being made on developing a solution. Health care professionals met with state legislators last month to brainstorm ways to attract primary care physicians to meet future demand, he said.
"We have [Berkshire Medical Center], the medical school, and the [Massachusetts Medical Society] working to improve the situation," Michaels said.
Michaels said the study's results were similar to last year's.
Statewide, the average wait time for a non-emergency appointment with a primary care doctor is 39 days for family physicians, an improvement from 45 days last year. But the wait time to see an internist was 50 days, up from 44 days a year ago.
The local results also show Berkshire County patients, on average, wait longer to see an internist. In Berkshire County, new patients seeking cardiology care, for example, had to wait twice as long as the state average. The wait time in Berkshire County is 56 days. The state average is 28.
Berkshire Medical Center Spokesman Michael Leary said a doctor shortage isn't unique to the Berkshires, but a national issue. Health care is available immediately to anyone who needs it, he said.
Michaels, who serves as an attending physician at all three county hospitals, said practicing in the Berkshires carries challenges. Physicians could be less inclined to come to the Berkshires because of the high number of patients on Medicare and Commonwealth Care, which is less profitable. The penetration of Medicare in Berkshire County is near 30 percent, Michaels said.
The dearth of physicians also doesn't allow for new physicians to be locally trained.
"There are not enough slots available in primary care physician offices," Michaels said.
Last month, Michaels said health care professionals met with all six local state legislators during an annual routine meeting. He said among the plans in development is a plan by the Massachusetts Medical Society to develop a foundation that would assist in paying back student loans and home mortgage for physicians that stay in the Bay State.
Berkshires Health Systems has people specifically tasked to recruit new physicians, said Thomas Romeo, vice president for physician services at Berkshire Health Systems. The largest health employer in the county says they proactively plan out their needs in each department and they have already identified two fellowship recipients who will be staying in the area.
The survey interviewed 1,137 doctors by phone across Massachusetts' 14 counties. According to the survey, there were 10 responses in Berkshire County from family medicine specialists. The shortest wait time was 53 days, while the longest was 143 days. The median was 102 days.
In cardiology, eight doctors were interviewed. The shortest time for an appointment was 16 days, while the longest was 120. The median was 58 days.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.