Valley Medical Center Doctors Report Dangerously Long Patient Wait Times
Forty-one days for general surgery. Fifty-five days for neurosurgery. More than two months for urology.
Those are some of the median patient wait times to see a specialist physician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, which is a county hospital that serves our community’s underinsured and uninsured.
“I had a patient who was waiting months to be seen,” said Dr. Rachel Ruiz who is a pediatric gastroenterologist, a specialist, at the hospital.
““Reading this child’s chart, I had a strong suspicion that he had either a gastric or duodenal ulcer. These ulcers can be ticking timebombs,” Dr. Ruiz recalled. She was not able to see the child right away because after the primary doctor referred the child to her, Dr. Ruiz’s first available appointment was months away when it should have been within a couple weeks, according to multiple doctors the Investigative Unit spoke to. A possible language barrier also prevented the family from letting medical staff know their son was getting worse. By the time Dr. Ruiz saw the boy, she was concerned too much time had passed.
“He had been doubled over in pain for weeks. He had lost a bunch of weight. It’s unconscionable,” Dr. Ruiz said.
Dr. Ruiz isn’t the only Santa Clara County-employed doctor speaking out about alarmingly long patient wait times. Dr. Eon Rios with the hospital’s dermatology division said he’s also seen the wait times impact patient care.
“If they’re severe enough, [patients] can go to the Emergency Department and get admitted. But there’s just no space because we don’t have enough to cover both inpatient and outpatient,” he said.
Dr. Ruiz and Dr. Rios told the Investigative Unit high patient counts are also leading to physician burnout. The two physicians are part of a group of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center doctors who recently held a demonstration threatening to walk off the job.
NBC Bay Area brought these concerns to the county’s top executive Jeff Smith who believes the county can do better but, overall, is doing a good job.
“If you look at our performance numbers that are standardized across the nation, we do a good job of providing good quality care,” Dr. Smith said.
Dr. Smith said the county is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit more doctors. But when it comes to reducing patient counts for doctors on staff currently, he said that is not a viable option.
“We’ve been asking them to see two and half patients an hour in primary care clinics…[the doctors] want less than two,” Dr. Jeff said. “We understand the doctors are feeling the stress of the work, but we can’t sacrifice access for our patients in order to deal with the stress. We have to use other options.”
Shortly after the Investigative Unit’s interview with Dr. Smith, the county reached a tentative agreementwith the doctor’s union, Valley Physicians Group, which would:
- Increase doctor pay.
- Add hospital and nursing staff to assist physicians.
- And allow doctors to see one fewer patient per four-hour period.
With increased recruitment and this new agreement, Dr. Ruiz and Dr. Rios said they are cautiously optimistic. Some of the changes only last two years under the current agreement. They feel this battle has been about patients, but also about doctors advocating for themselves especially after a recent union survey showed 68% of Santa Clara County-employee doctors recently considered leaving within the next three years.
“If we don’t stand up now, then when?” said Dr. Ruiz.
It is currently unclear whether patient wait times will improve as a direct result of the new agreement, which the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved in a second reading on Dec. 6. Since the Investigative Unit’s interview with County Executive Jeff Smith, he announced his is retiring from his position next year after 13 years. In a statement, he said he was ready to spend more time with family.