The number of doctors with the expertise to evaluate and treat kids with developmental disabilities is alarmingly low, researchers say, which can delay critical assessments and intervention.

The wait to see a developmental and behavioral pediatrician is often nearly half a year, according to findings published this month in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

For the study, researchers phoned 140 developmental pediatric programs affiliated with children’s hospitals nationwide posing as mystery shoppers requesting an appointment. Of the 75 offices that provided a wait time, the average was almost five and a half months.

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Meanwhile, when the same pediatricians’ practices were called in Spanish, only 55 percent offered any estimate of the wait time and a third of the offices provided no Spanish-language services, the study found.

“Relative to the number of children who would benefit from seeing a developmental pediatrician, the number of specialized physicians in the field is relatively few,” said Manuel Jimenez of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School who led the study. “This has the potential to limit access to rigorous diagnostic evaluations which in turn can ensure access to specialized services and therapies.”

Only about 1,000 developmental and behavioral pediatricians exist across the country, researchers indicated, even as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 6 kids have a developmental disorder.

“Our study serves as a reminder to physicians to be mindful of the difficulty our patients experience to obtain an initial assessment including an extended waiting period and barriers to language services,” Jimenez said.

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