Norway, Canada and Sweden have the highest patient wait times for specialist appointments and elective procedures.

Wait times are the boogeyman of public health systems all over the world. They cut to the very heart of the debate over costs versus access to care.

Hardly a week goes by where we don’t see a story on the world’s ever-lengthening patient queues (and trust us, we make it our business to keep up on these things). Fortunately, a new OECD study has shed some additional light on the subject.

In Health at a Glance 2011, researchers investigated wait times across 11 countries using data from a 2010 Commonwealth Fund Survey. They found more patients waiting longer for specialist appointments and elective surgery in Canada, Sweden and Norway.

In all three of these countries, at least 50% of patients surveyed had to wait 4 weeks or more to see a specialist (in Canada that figure was 59%). According to the report, all three of these countries had “significant” numbers of patients who had to wait six days or more to see a GP.

We found the statistics for the UK particularly interesting. While the UK was ranked #4 in terms of wait times for elective surgeries, it was #8 for specialist appointments, with fewer patients waiting 4 weeks or more than in France, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands. According to administrative data over 90% of NHS patients receive elective care within 18 weeks of referral, “more positive results than those reported in surveys.”

The report also noted that wait times can vary substantially within countries as well. In England, Germany and Austria, wealthier patients with access to private healthcare wait less than people of more modest means (no surprise there). In Canada, women tend to wait longer to see specialists than men, “possibly because men consult a specialist at a more advanced or acute stage of disease, and have a more urgent need for treatment.”

But the biggest surprise of all?

Wait times aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In the report’s own words:

Optimum waiting times are not necessarily zero. It can be cost-effective to maintain short queues of elective patients because the adverse health consequences of short delays are, minimal, and there are savings in hospital capacity from allowing queues to form. They may also deter patients who stand to gain only small health benefits from demanding treatment.

So it seems that even in an ideal healthcare system, in perfect country in a perfect world, patients would still have to wait.