Original Research

Direct and Indirect Patient Costs of Dermatology Clinic Visits and Their Impact on Access to Care and Provider Preference

Author and Disclosure Information

The direct and indirect costs of dermatology clinic visits are infrequently quantified. Indirect costs, such as the time spent traveling to and from appointments and the value of lost earnings from time away from work, are substantial costs that often are not included in economic analyses but may pose barriers to receiving care. Due to the national shortage of dermatologists, patients may have to wait longer for appointments or travel further to see dermatologists outside of their local community, resulting in high time and travel costs for patients. Patients’ lost time and earnings comprise the opportunity cost of obtaining care. A monetary value for this opportunity cost can be calculated by multiplying a patient’s hourly wage by the number of hours that the patient dedicated to attending the dermatology appointment. Using a single institution survey, this study quantified the direct and indirect patient costs, including opportunity costs and time burden, associated with dermatology clinic visits to better appreciate the impact of these factors on health care access and dermatologic provider preference.

Practice Points

  • Physicians should be cognizant of the direct and indirect costs patients are subject to when attending dermatology clinic appointments and implement changes to reduce these costs.
  • Telephone calls and secure email messaging are feasible alternatives shown to aid in clinical management and decrease the need for in-person care.
  • Telecommunication may be used for the monitoring of chronic but stable conditions to reduce the number of follow-up visits.



Access to outpatient specialty care is notably limited due to time and out-of-pocket costs to patients, leading to patient dissatisfaction and worsened clinical outcomes. Lost time and earnings pose considerable opportunity costs for patients, with the total opportunity cost for all physician visits per year estimated at $52 billion in 2010 in the United States.1

The field of dermatology exemplifies the access issues patients may face when seeking specialty care given the ongoing national shortage of dermatologists and notably long wait times exceeding 60 days in major cities.2-4 With the high demand and limited number of providers, patients may have longer wait times to see dermatologists in their communities or have to travel further to see dermatologists in distant locations who have available appointments; therefore, patients may be subject to higher associated time, travel, and monetary costs. According to the 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, dermatology visits in the United States cost an average of $221 per visit compared to $166 for primary care. Dermatology visits had the highest median cost per office visit ($124) and were more often associated with out-of-pocket expenses (60.7%) compared to other specialties.5 Despite these high costs, the number of dermatology visits is increasing each year, with more than 38 million dermatology visits in 2012.6

In light of these factors that limit patient access to dermatologists compared to other specialists, we performed an evaluation of the direct and indirect costs to patients visiting an outpatient dermatology clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, to better understand obstacles to receiving dermatologic care. The impact that time and money have on how patients prefer to receive their care also was evaluated. Conducting this study in Boston may best reflect patient barriers to obtaining dermatologic treatment, as nationwide surveys have found that Boston has the highest cumulative average wait times for physician appointments compared to other US metropolitan cities, with an average wait time of 72 days to see a dermatologist.4 New studies of patient costs associated with dermatology clinic visits are lacking, and existing economic analyses rarely include time costs. Understanding time burden and opportunity costs from the patient perspective may motivate patients and physicians to alter how they receive and provide health care, respectively, to minimize these expenses. Advances in health care technology such as telecommunication may facilitate these changes.


Study Design
This survey study took place from October 1, 2015, to March 4, 2016, at the department of dermatology outpatient clinic of Tufts Medical Center, an academic university hospital located in downtown Boston, Massachusetts, with no satellite clinics. Five general dermatologists, 2 dermatologic surgeons, and 9 dermatology residents comprised the dermatology department. The study protocol and questionnaire received exemption status from the Tufts University Health Science’s institutional review board.

All adult patients (aged ≥18 years) attending a scheduled dermatology clinic visit within the designated time frame were invited to complete a questionnaire available in English, Spanish, or Chinese. Patients completed the questionnaire on paper or electronically using handheld tablets. Data were then compiled into the REDCap (Research Electronic Data Capture) online database. The questionnaire surveyed patient age; gender; ethnicity; language spoken; highest level of education; employment status; reason for visit (ie, skin condition); duration, cost, and mode of transportation; duration of visit including wait time; companion accompaniment; profession; hourly wage; and number of work hours requested off to attend the visit. Lastly, patients were surveyed on whether they prefer to receive dermatologic care at Tufts, to receive in-person care elsewhere, to use teledermatology, or none of the above.

Statistical Analysis
Total time attributed to the visit was the sum of time for round-trip travel to and from the clinic, wait time, and face-to-face time with care providers. Out-of-pocket patient expenses included round-trip travel expenses, child care expenses, and direct payments such as deductibles and co-pays. Opportunity cost for employed patients was calculated as the patient’s average hourly wage multiplied by either the number of hours taken off from work or the number of hours the patient attributed to the visit, whichever value was higher at the individual level. For the purpose of calculating opportunity costs, travel time, wait time, and face-to-face time were imputed using average values for these variables when not reported. Patients could provide exact hourly wage and annual income or select the closest approximation from 10 wage ranges. For patients who selected a wage range, the midpoint of the range was used as the hourly wage. Total costs were the sum of reported out-of-pocket expenses and calculated opportunity costs. For unemployed patients and those who did not report employment status, hourly wage was assumed to be $0, resulting in opportunity costs of $0. Costs are tabulated for individual patients and analyzed in aggregate.

Differences in patient characteristics between those who preferred their current care provider versus those who preferred to seek care elsewhere or via teledermatology were compared using the χ2 and Student t test. A multivariate logistic regression was then performed to identify predictors of patient preference for their current provider. Potential predictors for regression model were time and cost variables as well as factors selected based on results from bivariate analysis. Data analysis was performed using statistical software.


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