Waiting times for elective treatments according to insurance status: A randomized empirical study in Germany

Int J Equity Health. 2008 Jan 9:7:1. doi: 10.1186/1475-9276-7-1.


Background: Health insurance coverage for all citizens is often considered a requisite for reducing disparities in health care accessibility. In Germany, health insurees are covered either by statutory health insurance (SHI) or private health insurance (PHI). Due to a 20%-35% higher reimbursement of physicians for patients with PHI, it is often claimed that patients with SHI are faced with longer waiting times when it comes to obtaining outpatient appointments. There is little empirical evidence regarding outpatient waiting times for patients with different health insurance status in Germany.

Methods: We called 189 specialist practices in the region of Cologne, Leverkusen, and Bonn. Practices were selected from publicly available telephone directories (Yellow Pages 2006/2007) for the specified region. Data were collected for all practices within each of five specialist fields. We requested an appointment for one of five different elective treatments (allergy test plus pulmonary function test, pupil dilation, gastroscopy, hearing test, MRT of the knee) by calling selected practices. The caller was randomly assigned the status of private or statutory health insuree. The total period of data collection amounted to 4.5 weeks in April and May 2006.

Results: Between 41.7% and 100% of the practices called were included according to specialist field. We excluded practices that did not offer the requested treatment, were closed for more than one week, did not answer the call, did not offer fixed appointments ("open consultation hour") or did not accept any newly registered patients. Waiting time difference between private and statutory policyholders was 17.6 working days (SHI 26.0; PHI 8.4) for allergy test plus pulmonary function test; 17.0 (25.2; 8.2) for pupil dilation; 24.8 (36.7; 11.9) for gastroscopy; 4.6 (6.8; 2.2) for hearing test and 9.5 (14.1; 4.6) for the MRT of the knee. In relative terms, the difference in working days amounted to 3.08 (95%-KI: 1,88 bis 5,04) and proved significant.

Conclusion: Even with comprehensive health insurance coverage for almost 100% of the population, Germany shows clear differences in access to care, with SHI patients waiting 3.08 times longer for an appointment than PHI patients. Wide-spread anecdotal reports of shorter waiting times for PHI patients were empirically supported. Discrepancies in access to care not only depend on accessibility to comprehensive health insurance cover, but also on the level of reimbursement for the physician. Higher reimbursements for the provider when it comes to comparable health problems and diagnostic treatments could lead to improved access to care. We conclude that incentives for adjusting access to care according to the necessity of treatment should be implemented.