Specialist visits more accessible last year, but surgery queues remain long

A health care worker treating a coronavirus patient at Tallinn's North Estonia Medical Center.
A health care worker treating a coronavirus patient at Tallinn's North Estonia Medical Center. Source: PERH

People awaiting specialized doctor visits last year received treatment faster than the year prior, but the schedules for planned surgeries have gotten even longer in relation to the coronavirus crisis. Fields such as psychiatry were able to improve the backlog by reorganizing work processes.

"Access to outpatient treatment has improved, meaning you were able to visit a regular doctor in 2021 somewhat faster than in 2020. That mostly stems from hospitals working on treating coronavirus patients in the final quarter of 2021, the hospital beds were occupied. At the same time, there was an opportunity to focus on outpatient treatment more," Health Insurance Fund partner relations department director Marko Tähnas said.

The number of initial doctors' visits in the fourth quarter of 2021 increased by almost 60,000 year-on-year. "It is even more important from an individual perspective that every third patient was able to go to a doctor within a week at the end of last year," Tähnas added.

The Health Insurance Fund official said regional differences also play a part. "The last coronavirus wave hit southern Estonia somewhat harder and the accessibility did not improve as much there as it did in other regions," he said.

Availability of outpatient treatment has also improved when compared to pre-coronavirus times. "Planned surgeries have been delayed, however. In 2021, there were thousands of surgeries postponed to 2022, because hospital beds were filled with coronavirus patients," Tähnas said.

"People may have seen their awaited planned surgery postponed to this year. Anything requiring a hospital bed, anesthesiology, intensive care, is something where people may have had to wait a bit longer," he noted.

Work had to be reorganized in pshychiatry

Tähnas said there have not been any major changes in treatment queues despite the field. "Availability for the more specific and complicated fields has gone down somewhat. Allergology-immunology or medical genetics, for example. We saw an improvement for fields, where there are more visits, such as ophthalmology or cardiology," he said.

The most worrying issue is queues in specialties, where people can get treatment without a doctor's referral, such as dermatologists with longer queues, gynecology, psychiatry and ophthalmologists. "These are fields where availability has been challenging, but it has improved," Tähnas said.

Psychiatry can be pointed to as an example of a field where accessibility has not improved despite the best efforts of hospitals and clinics to make it possible for people to access doctors and mental health specialists.

"The patient organization changed in 2021. The rate of mental health issues in society has increased, which is understandable since we have been in a pandemic for over a year. Hospitals have reacted by making mental health nurses the first contact person, meaning people do not turn directly to psychiatrists as much any more," the Health Insurance Fund official said.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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