Why people in Spain are facing longer waits to see a doctor

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A lack of resources, the rise in winter viruses and planned strikes by health workers in at least six different regions have been blamed for the longer waiting times to see a doctor in Spain, which is now an average of 8.8 days. 

Two out of every three people in Spain wait more than a day to be seen by their local GP and in Primary Care, it’s more than a week, according to data from the latest Health Barometer updated by the Ministry of Health. 

The regions with the longest waiting times are Catalonia and Valencia, where the average time exceeds 10 days. 

This is followed by the Canary Islands, Andalusia and Madrid, where the average waiting time to get an appointment is more than 9 days.

The shortest waiting times are in the Basque Country, Castilla y León and Asturias with 5.34 days, 5.63 days and 5.6 days respectively. 

The average waiting time between when a person asks for an appointment and is finally seen by their family doctor has increased by 51.72 percent since 2019. 

“For a long time, the existence of waiting lists for Primary Care was denied. Now it is a fact,” explains the first vice president of the Spanish Society of Family and Community Medicine, Susana Aldecoa.

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“The increase in waiting times started before the pandemic, but Covid only aggravated the situation,” added Aldecoa. 

Lack of resources 

A lack of resources is being blamed as the primary cause for the increase in waiting times. 

According to data from the Ministry of Health, the two regions with the highest and lowest number of doctors in Primary Care are Castilla y León and Madrid, with 1.11 and 0.68 professionals per thousand assigned patients.

There are of course many other reasons to explain the difference in wait times between the two regions, such as how the resources are used. 

“Waiting lists tend to be longer in urban areas, where there are no more places available, but it also happens in rural areas when a doctor is absent, due to a vacation, sick leave or for any other reason and unfortunately, there is no possibility of coverage, because there is no more staff” explains Aldecoa. 

Given the lengthening waiting times, some patients are falling through the gaps and are not being seen, while others decide to go to the emergency room at hospitals instead, transferring the overload from one point of the health system to another. 

More people are also choosing to take out private insurance to avoid delays, according to Aldecoa. 

Specialist care 

According to the latest data from the Ministry of Health, the rate of patients waiting for a first consultation with a specialist has also risen and has gone from 61.84 people per thousand inhabitants in 2019 to 79.3 percent in 2022, which represents an increase of 28.23 percent. 

In regions such as Andalusia and Navarra, this general average rises to 110.45 percent and 83.38 percent, respectively. 

Although the average waiting time for these consultations has fallen slightly compared to before the pandemic, going from 81 to 79 days, the percentage of people on the waiting list with a date assigned more than 60 days away has grown, amounting to up to 49.3 percent, compared to 42.6 percent in 2019.

The situation for non-urgent surgical interventions is similar: waiting lists increase, despite the slight decrease in average times. According to the latest data, there are 742,518 people on surgical waiting lists, a number that has increased by 10.57 percent compared to the 671,494 patients in June 2019. Although the average waiting time has been slightly reduced from 115 to 113 days, 17.6 percent of these people have been waiting for more than six months.

The regions where people are having to wait the longest for surgeries are Catalonia, the Canary Islands, Extremadura and Cantabria, with average waiting times of 151, 144, 139 and 132 days respectively. While Castilla-La Mancha (28.3 percent), Catalonia (27.6 percent) and Aragón (25.9 percent) are the ones with the highest percentages of patients who have to wait more than six months for surgery. 

“The National Health System is very stressed at the moment, we have been denouncing the lack of personnel for years,” the Independent Central Union and Officials concluded, warning “the worst is yet to come” since the explosion of flu cases usually occurs in the middle of January.