Reasons why your wait time at the doctor’s office is so long

Painful wait times at the doctor’s office.  It’s an old story with few exceptions.

As a dad, I have to deal with many of the same issues of parenting that you deal with: sleepless nights , fevers and holding my kids down for shots (my wife did it once, I think, then she promptly retired from this job).  However, waiting at the pediatrician is not something I have to do.  So, I can’t truly empathize with you on this one.

I’m not one to defend the status quo, but I’m going to go ahead and defend the status quo a little bit.

Here are some acceptable reasons why wait times are long:

Scheduling. Doctors, pediatricians specifically, are often overscheduled.  We generally come out of school with the same amount of debt as our friends who have entered more lucrative specialties.  The only way to make up some of the difference (and pay back your loans) is to see more patients.  Thus, patients are scheduled closer together.  This normally does not cause problems, but stuff happens.

Emergencies. If you have a doctor with hospital privileges (especially one who goes to deliveries), emergencies will happen.  Getting called to a C-section can ruin an entire afternoon for a busy pediatrician.  Great partners will try to pick up the slack while you are gone but it is a strain on the whole system.  What about other little emergencies?  The teenager who reveals during their well-child exam that they are depressed and suicidal.  The 6-year-old getting an MRI for headaches that turn out to have been caused by a brain tumor.  Yes, I could assign those conversations to someone else by referring to the ER or the specialist but would you want it to be your pediatrician walking you through that?

Now here are some unacceptable reasons why wait times are long:

Too much time out of room for the doctors. I heard a story once about a doctor who’s patients complained that his wait times were too long.  He in turn complained to his staff that they were too slow.  Come to find out, every morning, before he saw any patients, he sat down at his desk and read the entire paper, cover to cover.  He had patients waiting 15 minutes completely ready for him to see but was sitting in the back office.  15 minutes might not be terribly inconvenient but that 15 minutes, on a bad day, will turn into 30-45-60 minutes that could have been avoided.  Reading the paper may not be much of a temptation these days, but spending time on the computer doing other stuff is huge.  I have to make a point not to be on Facebook, Twitter and other social media during patient care time.  I do my social media and blogging before patients arrive and at lunch.

Poor workflow in the office. In my practice, my staff understood how important this issue was to me.  There are other ways to know if workflow is the problem but one thing is certain, if you can’t see your first patient of the day on time then there’s something wrong.

Chronic overscheduling. While I do understand the issues related to scheduling, I don’t excuse the doctor for always having a schedule such that they run behind every day.  Something can be done.

Now, you can read over this and take it however you want, but keep this in mind.  You almost always have a choice in medical care.  Unless your child needs a specialist for which there is only one in town or you live in such a rural area that there is only one provider, you have a choice.  When we make any choice, we prioritize what’s important: Someone might choose to see a doctor they love and tolerate the fact that their wait times are longer.

Ultimately, waiting anywhere is hard.  Waiting in the doctor’s office is especially hard when you have a sick child, no one slept the night before and the only appointment available was right in the middle of nap time.

I promise to keep working on those things that I can do in order to shorten your wait time.

Justin Smith is a pediatrician who blogs at DoctorJSmith.  He can be reached on Twitter @TheDocSmitty.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Dr. Drake Ramoray

    While this article makes some very valid points about reasons physician may be running behind, much like the movment to pay for performance measures coming down the pipeline this piece removes any responsibility of bad outcomes or issues in healthcare from the patient.

    My first patient this morning has just arrived over 10 minutes late. I know this patient well. I would wager money that she will go to the bathroom for 5-10 minutes after my MA has checked her in with vitals etc. By the time she is actually ready to be seen her appointment time will already be over. I suspect that she will have an additional issue that she wants to discuss today that is unrelated to my field, even though I only see her for specialty care, and I will be stuck being at least 30 minutes behind for the rest of the morning, unless somebody no shows.

    *Confirmed the patient is currently in the restroom.

  • The Patient Doc

    As a patient, I understand how miserable long wait times can be, but as a physician I realize how unavoidable at times. For docs working for people, sometimes we have no control. At my last job, I wasn’t allowed to handle or even make recommendations about my schedules. Also, my office was constantly hiring new MA’s who would leave as soon as they were trained for a better paying job. I was never allowed to tell them how I wanted things to be done to improve workflow. I will admit that I had to spend a lot of time out of patients rooms, but not because I was on social media, but because the EMR/computer in room was not set up well.

  • EmilyAnon

    As a patient,one thing that bothers me about long waits is when no one gives you an update when you will be seen. It’s one thing to be sitting in the waiting room for an hour, but another to have a long wait in the cold exam room already undressed and no one poking their head in the door to give assurance that we hadn’t been forgotten. One time I was in the exam room for way over an hour with no communication from the nurses and when the doctor finally came in, he said nothing about being late. I don’t mean an apology or even the reason, but at least an acknowledgment that I was kept waiting.

    • Justin Smith

      I always try to say, “Sorry you had to wait” if I think it’s been too long. I agree that regular updates are critical. Waiting is bad enough, waiting and not knowing if you’ve been forgotten or what the heck is going on is worse.

  • JPedersenB

    I can add another reason for long waits. My former allergist would have every exam room filled while he chatted with drug reps for an hour….

    • Justin Smith

      Clearly would be in my unacceptable category…sorry about that!

      • JPedersenB


    • NormRx

      Maybe he found it more enjoyable to talk to a drug rep than a patient.

      • JPedersenB

        Perhaps he should just work for the drug company and not see patients….

        • NormRx

          I did work for a drug company and I don’t see patients.

          • JPedersenB

            Glad you don’t…

  • Lisa

    I must be pretty lucky because my doctors seem to be able to keep to a schedule. I rarely have to wait long, either in the waiting room or exam room. The few times when the doctor is behind schedule, I have been offered the choice of waiting or rescheduling. Maybe my preference for early morning appointments helps.

  • guest

    The pediatrician, in my opinion, is the hardest to wait for. I can wait for a long time as a patient myself. Keeping my kid entertained while her doc is delayed, on the other hand, is another ball game. As a doc, I’m sympathetic to the reasons why a pediatrician is delayed. But I can empathize with the patients as to why a long wait time is extremely frustrating.

  • medicontheedge

    This is why the ED has become the new primary and pediatric care “offices” Yes, there may be a wait time there, too, but as many hospitals are actively marketing to the non-emergency customer demographics, we are under the gun about keeping wait times short. Hell, our providers PAY is based on it! There are wait time websites,so customers can pick the ED with the shortest wait time. And as I work primarily in Triage, I can tell you everyday we see dozens of patients referred BY THEIR DOCTOR, who is turfing the tough stuff, ie; tests, decisions, tough conversations, etc to US. Primary and pediatric care delivered in Doctor’s offices is getting ready to make a huge shift, the question is, to what?

Most Popular