Osvaldo Sanchez is slowly getting back on his feet. Just using a walker is an accomplishment. The seven year old was born with cerebral palsy. He underwent surgery on his legs and took his first steps this year but waited four months to get into physical therapy. His mom Jeanette Sanchez believes that caused critical delays.
"He is so determined to do this stuff and to get around to walking. And if we'd gotten him faster help, he'd probably be walking by himself now," said Sanchez.
Osvaldo, is one of millions of sick children forced to wait months and months to see a doctor because of a shortage of pediatricians. Osvaldo who needs occupational therapy too, has been on a wait list for OT since April. It's a medical crisis that's growing worse, with pediatric patients who need critical care or surgery face lengthy waits.
"I've heard stories. I've met with mothers in the waiting room sometimes. We do talk about that, the long waiting periods," said Sanchez.
Long waits are common too at Dr. Ellen Hamburger's pediatric practice. It's been hard finding young doctors willing to work with children. "I know that some pediatric practices... have had a difficulty recruiting pediatricians for their practices," said Hamburger.
One study in the journal Pediatrics found as many as 8.1 million children have no pediatrician in their area. The shortage is compounded by the lack of what's called pediatric "sub specialists". These are the doctors that treat kids with more severe medical conditions. "We have had great difficulty having our patients access sub-specialists in the last several years," Hamburger told FOX5. While the standard wait for an appointment is two weeks, a survey by the Children's Hospital Association found children who need a pediatric sub-specialist may wait seven times longer to see a doctor. There are so few specialists some patients drive hundreds of miles just to get an appointment.
The delays at times can be a matter of life and death. Mike Johnston, a 14-year old, suffered from debilitating headaches for more than a year. The wait to see a neurological pediatrician was so long, he ended up in the emergency room before the appointment arrived. He had a brain tumor but fortunately survived. "To find out it's going to be two months or to find out you have to drive to another city to cut the wait to 4 weeks is really difficult for families and I think endangers kids," said Mark Wietecha, CEO of the Children's Hospital Association.
According to the CHA study, the wait time for pediatric neurology is nearly nine weeks, genetics about eleven weeks, and developmental pediatrics is more than 14 weeks for an appointment or nearly four months. The numbers are just averages, which means many more patients wait even longer. "You don't always know what the negative impact will be... So often times, the lack of things in the early years shows up much later in life," Wietecha said.
You can thank in part the killer debt from medical school. The American Association of Medical Colleges reports young doctors graduate with an average debt of more than $160,000, while salaries in pediatrics lag behind other doctors and specialists. For Dr. Claire Boogaard, a pediatric resident in the District, it's a tough choice. "I think a lot of students in my medical class felt a lot of financial pressure and they made some decisions based on that," said Boogaard.
To boost the number of pediatricians, the Affordable Care Act, includes a provision to help with their medical school debt. Participants who go into a pediatric sub-specialty, surgery and mental or behavioral health could get up to $105,000 to repay student loans. The funding would still have to be authorized. Meanwhile, budget cuts in Congress threaten to eliminate current programs that pay for medical students to go into pediatrics. That could make a bad situation worse for patients like Osvaldo already facing delays. "Right now he is on the waiting list for OT... it's like he is not a priority I guess. So he gets down on the bottom of the waiting list," said Sanchez.
No one understands the critical shortage as much as the families who may not have the time to wait.