Are doctors to blame for long waiting room times?

As a physician, I was inspired by the Lesley Alderman article –”The Doctor Will See You … Eventually” – that appeared in the New York Times recently.

There is a great deal of emotion in this country surrounding the debate over waiting-room delays in physicians’ offices. Doctors feel as though they are being unjustly blamed for making patients wait when physicians are now forced to see more patients in less time, and with ever-increasing amounts of paperwork and administrative tasks attached to patient care. Patients feel as though doctors don’t care if they have to wait, and don’t value their time at all. The fact is there is truth to both positions on this issue.

I am a practicing orthopedic surgeon who has found it necessary at times to make patients wait for up to 1.5 hours. But I understand the other side all too well; as the father of a child who spent the first three months of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit followed by countless doctors’ visits, I have – as the parent of a young patient – myself had to wait at times for 1.5 hours.

As a doctor, I would ideally love to be able to see fifteen patients each day, and have the luxury of being able to spend thirty minutes with each one. This would make me happy. However, if I chose to practice this way, I would end up having to declare bankruptcy. As a result of declining reimbursements, I have to see more patients in less time than ever before. The result is tighter timelines, so there is no time during the day to catch up. If I get behind, I will stay behind and likely get further behind throughout the day.

My patients are understanding; after all, the doctor-patient relationship is a relationship just like any other, so they – like my family and friends – understand that I run behind. I don’t want to make them wait, and I am working my tail off. They know this. But just as in my relationships with my friends and family, if I kept them waiting for an 1.5 hours without letting them know, this would just be plain rude and unacceptable.

I usually do know when I am getting behind, and I communicate this delay and the reason for the delay electronically to them. If I am running substantially behind, they are able to adjust their schedule or run an errand on the way to see me. When I was taking my daughter to her doctors, there was nothing more annoying than carving out two hours of my day, rushing and running yellow lights to get to the appointment in time, only to end up waiting for over an hour.

There is no way that doctors will ever be able to always run on time. Healthcare is not predictable, and doctors are only getting busier. Patients need to get over this and have realistic expectations. We (doctors) don’t like running over either, and derive no joy out of making patients wait. However, there is no excuse for doctors who fail to communicate delays to their patients as they become aware of them.

The doctor-patient relationship is just that: a relationship. We always say we don’t want the government or anyone else to interfere in the sacred trust between a doctor and a patient. Well, with this in mind, let me state that we (doctors) are often the ones interfering in this trust. Communication goes a long way. Respect your patients and they will respect you. Let’s get this relationship back on track and focus on our goal: making people better.

Vishal Mehta is an orthopedic surgeon.

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