Long waits at the doctor’s office disrespect patients

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

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

A study by Press Ganey showed that the average time patients spend waiting to see their health provider is 24 minutes. The research was done back in 2009 and I think new data would show people are typically waiting much longer these days. As you might guess, overall satisfaction drops the longer a person has 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, of course, many different reasons why you may be kept waiting a long time by your health care providers. 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 healthcare providers’ basic philosophies 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 philosophical and financial 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 even encouraging 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.”

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 could they do about it?

There are lots of things patient-centered healthcare practices could do to improve things if they wanted to, in addition to avoiding over-scheduling. They could routinely call or email you if they’re running late. They could give you a device (like restaurants do) that will buzz when you’re called (when your “table’s ready,” so to speak), allowing you to step out in the fresh air or grab some coffee in the building’s lobby if you like.  They could sincerely apologize. They could come out into the waiting room and inform folks about the situation. (Of course, when they routinely run late they wouldn’t even think to do this).

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 — be sure to 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 institute measures to improve the situation. See what happens.
  • Complain about the waiting times on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, or websites like Yelp or Angie’s List.
  •  Send your doctor a bill for what you consider to be your excess waiting time. Don’t laugh. People have received checks.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.

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.

Barbara Bronson Gray is a nurse who blogs at BodBoss.

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