Access to health services is defined as "the timely use of personal health services to achieve the best health outcomes." Access to health care impacts one's overall physical, social, mental health status, and quality of life. It requires three distinct steps:
- Gaining entry into the health care system, usually through insurance coverage;
- Accessing a location where needed health care services are provided;
- Finding a health care provider whom the patient trusts and can communicate with.
There are three components to Access to Health Services: Coverage, services, and timeliness.
Coverage: Health insurance coverage assists patients in gaining entry into the health care system. Conversely, lack of adequate coverage makes it difficult for people to get the health care they need and, when and if they do get care, burdens them with large medical bills.
Services: Improving access to health care services depends, in part, on ensuring that people have a usual and ongoing source of care (that is, a provider or facility where one regularly receives care). It has been demonstrated that persons with a usual source of care have better health outcomes, fewer disparities, and lower costs. Having a primary care provider (PCP) is key. A PCP can develop meaningful and sustained relationships with patients and integrate their services. Having a PCP has been shown to relate to lower mortality from all causes.
Timeliness: Timeliness is the health care system's ability to provide health care quickly after a need is recognized. Measures of timeliness include:
- Availability of appointments and care for illness or injury when it is needed
- Amount of time spent waiting in doctors' offices and emergency departments
Delays in receiving care can cause increased emotional stress; increased complications, higher treatment costs and increased hospitalizations. Causes for increased emergency department wait times include an increase in the number of patients going to emergency departments, with many of the increased visits attributed to visits by less acutely ill patients.