Background and Objectives
The density of neurologists within a given geographic region varies greatly across the United States. We aimed to measure patient travel distance and travel time to neurologist visits, across neurologic conditions and subspecialties. Our secondary goal was to identify factors associated with long-distance travel for neurologic care.
We performed a cross-sectional analysis using a 2018 Medicare sample of patients with at least 1 outpatient neurologist visit. Long-distance travel was defined as driving distance ≥50 miles 1-way to the visit. Travel time was measured as driving time in minutes. Multilevel generalized linear mixed models with logistic link function, which accounted for clustering of patients within hospital referral region and allowed modeling of region-specific random effects, were used to determine the association of patient and regional characteristics with long-distance travel.
We identified 563,216 Medicare beneficiaries with a neurologist visit in 2018. Of them, 96,213 (17%) traveled long distance for care. The median driving distance and time were 81.3 (interquartile range [IQR]: 59.9–144.2) miles and 90 (IQR: 69–149) minutes for patients with long-distance travel compared with 13.2 (IQR: 6.5–23) miles and 22 (IQR: 14–33) minutes for patients without long-distance travel. Comparing across neurologic conditions, long-distance travel was most common for nervous system cancer care (39.6%), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS] (32.1%), and MS (22.8%). Many factors were associated with long-distance travel, most notably low neurologist density (first quintile: OR 3.04 [95% CI 2.41–3.83] vs fifth quintile), rural setting (4.89 [4.79–4.99]), long-distance travel to primary care physician visit (3.6 [3.51–3.69]), and visits for ALS and nervous system cancer care (3.41 [3.14–3.69] and 5.27 [4.72–5.89], respectively). Nearly one-third of patients bypassed the nearest neurologist by 20+ miles, and 7.3% of patients crossed state lines for neurologist care.
We found that nearly 1 in 5 Medicare beneficiaries who saw a neurologist traveled ≥50 miles 1-way for care, and travel burden was most common for lower-prevalence neurologic conditions that required coordinated multidisciplinary care. Important potentially addressable predictors of long-distance travel were low neurologist density and rural location, suggesting interventions to improve access to care such as telemedicine or neurologic subspecialist support to local neurologists. Future work should evaluate differences in clinical outcomes between patients with long-distance travel and those without.