How long should the wait be to see a doctor?

Matt Yglesias notes that seeing a doctor in the U.S. involves waiting.  I’ve never had this experience (not going to the doctor is my trick) but I’ve heard the same from other people.  My question is a simple one: in market equilibrium, should we expect two- or three month-long waits to see a doctor?  Or is this somehow an artifact of government intervention?

I understand why I might have to wait to get an iPhone (though I didn’t) or Harry Potter (though Yana didn’t).  I understand why I can’t just call up El Bulli and get a reservation; they want the highest status people eating there, plus the air of exclusivity creates positive publicity for spin-off products.  But I wouldn’t expect those mechanisms to matter for medicine, at least not at the GP level ("he won’t transplant a heart for just anyone, he’s promoting his personal line of stents", etc.).

Why might one have to wait for a doctor?

1. There are big gains to sticking with your previous doctor, and demand is uncertain each period so the lines add up.  But I would expect the law of large numbers to kick in, plus sometimes the wait should be very short.

2. Waiting lists are a form of price discrimination.  Some patients "hoard time" (just as dept. chairs in a university "hoard space") by making lots of appointments, many of which are unnecessary ex post.  Indirectly they are charged for this privilege but they get immediacy when they need it.  Matt (maybe) didn’t need immediacy and wasn’t willing to pay for it.

3. The President is always the last person to enter the room and that policy maximizes the value of his time.  Maybe doctors have lots of "drop out" appointments (patients get better or perhaps they die), and so doctors maximize the value of their time by keeping a long queue.  But for this to maximize profits, must the queue be longer than a week or so?

4. Some constraint — legal or otherwise — prevents doctors from raising their prices.  (This hypothesis, by the way, suggests that American medical care is even more expensive than it looks.)

Readers, why is the wait often as long as it is?  I’m not interested in debating health care policy today, I’d just like an answer to this question.

Addendum: Jane Galt adds commentary and analysis.


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