LA safety-net system plagued by long delays for specialty care, investigation finds

Thousands of patients at Los Angeles County’s safety-net healthcare system have faced extremely long waits to visit specialists, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The findings stem from a two-year investigation in which the Los Angeles Times interviewed dozens of current and former clinicians at the health system, patients and outside health experts. The publication also obtained and analyzed 860,000 records of communications between primary care providers and specialists from 2016-19 provided by the county, along with thousands of pages of medical records from patients. 

The newspaper conducted an independent data analysis that found the average wait time to see a specialist was 89 days. The median time was 66 days. County officials told the publication that the average wait time was 74 days in 2018, but did not fully explain how they calculated this figure to the Los Angeles Times.

The publication also found six cases in which patients died after waiting at least three months to see physicians in such critical specialties as cardiology or oncology. It’s not clear whether long wait times contributed to their deaths, but outside medical experts told the Los Angeles Times that these patients should have received treatment sooner. 

In an emailed statement to Becker’s, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services called the Los Angeles Times‘ report “misleading and sensationalistic” and said it “ignores the overwhelming evidence showing DHS has greatly improved its specialty care system to provide on-time consultations and procedures in the vast number of cases.” 

Officials said the department has revamped its scheduling system for non-emergency specialty care appointments since 2017. Overall, the department said it cut the time for making initial patient contact to schedule an appointment from 24 to five days.

The health department also said the specific patient cases highlighted in the report are “not representative of the care provided by DHS today” and were “carefully cherry-picked from the era before DHS made major changes to specialty care scheduling.”

The Los Angeles Times launched its investigation in fall 2018 after a physician working at the safety-net system tipped off the publication of the long wait times, which the physician said caused unnecessary suffering for patients.

View the full report here.

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