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Guest Blog: Waiting Too Long for the Doctor? What to Do


"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me." - William Shakespeare, Richard II

A friend recently asked me: Why do we have to wait so long for doctors and not for other professionals, like lawyers, accountants or dentists? And is there anything we can we do about it?

A 2009 study estimated that we spend 24 minutes waiting to see a health care provider.'  I suspect new data would show that we are waiting much longer. As you might guess, overall satisfaction drops the longer we have to wait.

Waiting to see a physician is much, much different from waiting for an airplane or a bus.

You're often anxious about the appointment, uncomfortable, in pain or worried. I have a friend who had to wait three hours for her first chemotherapy appointment, which seems cruel. Another friend had to wait almost an hour to get oral surgery: sitting in a cold office, having had no food or water since dinner time the night before, and very nervous.

Why Are You Kept Waiting?' 

There are many different reasons why you may be kept waiting a long time. ' While there is always the possibility of an emergency having caused an unusual delay, most practices seem pretty consistent; they either always keep you waiting or rarely make you wait. That's due to the health care providers' basic beliefs about their time and money; how much they value their patients' time; and their ability to run a smooth and efficient practice.

A practice that doesn't make you wait has undoubtedly made a decision that it's not right to make patients sit very long in the waiting room. They respect your time as much as they respect their own. So they are careful to reserve a few slots every day in their schedule in case a patient's visit takes longer than expected or there's an emergency. They also create some "breathing time" in the schedule to help ensure the ebb and flow of people in and out won't create a frustrating and tiring delay for their patients.

A practice that always makes you wait has a different perspective. They are typically maximizing revenue, over-booking multiple appointments to allow for some "no-shows," and might even encourage extended patient visits and un-planned procedures because they increase the day's revenue. Basically:

More Patients + More Procedures = More Practice and Personal Revenue.

Sometimes, the practice is just lax. I had the first appointment of the day to see my general practitioner and waited a very long hour. When I asked the office staff how that could possibly be and was there an emergency, they said, "Oh, no, she comes in when she comes in." Hum.

Some of us mind all this more than others. A good friend of ours told me he has come to expect long waits when he or his wife sees a specialist. (He's right. Average waiting times of specialists are longer than generalists). So he brings a big stack of back issues of the Financial Times and starts plowing through them.

What Can You Do?

Here are a few approaches you can take to deal with this issue:

  • Book the first appointment of the day or the first appointment after the office's lunch period. This doesn't always work because some practices book several people for every slot, but it's worth a try and it's likely to minimize your wait at least a bit.

  • Call ahead and ask how the day is going in terms of appointment delays and see if you should come in a little later. I've tried this with various results. Sometimes they just warn you that they'll take you based on when you come through the door.

  • If you're seeing a doctor who is prone to being called out of the office'a specialist such as an obstetrician/gynecologist or a surgeon'call ahead to see how the day is going. If you can reschedule on a bad day, you may save yourself a lot of time and aggravation.

  • After you've waited for 15 minutes or so (or whatever amount of time you're personally comfortable with), ask the office staff' how much longer they think the waiting time will be. If their answer doesn't please you and if your problem doesn't require immediate attention, ask to reschedule your appointment. Somehow that often gets you seen more quickly.

  • Consider talking frankly with your doctor or writing a letter explaining your frustration about the long waits and ask that the practice improve. See what happens.

  • Be a super patient patient. Bring fun things to do, read or listen to, and hunker down for the afternoon with an amazing attitude. (This would be very hard for me).

More dramatic options:

  • Complain about the waiting times on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, or websites like Yelp or Angie's List.

  • Find a new doctor. Ask the new practice's staff what their philosophy of waiting times is before you book. Listen to what they say.

  • If you don't want to keep seeing your doctor, you can sue your doctor in small claims court for your time. People have succeeded at this. It certainly makes a point.

The bottom line: Expecting me to wait a long time in a doctor's office tells me two things. First, I don't feel respected. The physician is, after all, my consultant. And secondly, I wonder how committed the practice is to my comfort and to reducing my anxiety when they seem to be putting more emphasis on their needs than on mine.

More Blog Posts by Barbara Bronson Gray

author bio

Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN is an award-winning writer and nationally-recognized health expert who blogs at She writes articles on healthcare for many websites and national magazines, has worked in hospitals, helped run hospitals, led a major healthcare magazine, developed a website for WebMD, served as a leader of global communications for biotech giant Amgen, and has a communications consultancy based in California. Follow her on Twitter @bbgrayrn

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Inside Healthcare   Barbara Bronson Gray   Find Good Health Care   Communicate with your Doctors  

Comments on this post
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Jim Jaffe says
May 2, 2012 at 3:34 PM

beyond being somewhat curious about documentation about the correlation between wait time and overall satisfaction, the status quo isn't terribly difficult to understand. doctors keep patients waiting for extended periods because they can get away with that sort of behavior. patients put up with it because they have other priorities. there's also a lot of grousing about the queue to get an appointment with a specialist. one wonders whether you'd like to see one next Monday and wait two hours or be told you can't be seen until late July, but be seen immediately at that time. I'd take the former and suspect many others would also.

we are seeing some evidence of market forces in medicine. the growing popularity of walk-in operations of various types suggests that patients prefer convenience. one can fantasize about the day when such facilities will be so popular that physicians in more conventional practices will set aside a few hours each day for walk ins.

as a general rule, though, as long as the patients behave like sheep, doctors with busy calendars will act as if patients have nothing else to do with their time but casually graze.

bbg says
May 2, 2012 at 6:51 PM

Thank you for your comments!

Practices that don't keep people waiting build in enough time for the average patient visit and leave a few appointments blank to allow for unexpected delays and emergencies. I am especially sympathetic to the people who are sick, awaiting chemotherapy, recovering from surgery, etc. who are sometimes kept waiting hours. Offices can do a better job of communicating that the office is backed up and suggest to patients that they arrive a bit later.
We've got the technology to do a better job if we have the interest in doing it.

~Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN