When the Doctor is Running Late

Recently I’ve seen a number of complaints about doctors running late.  There’s even a cartoon showing the (im)patient handing the receptionist a bill for excess time spent in the waiting room.  I have to admit that I used to feel that way. If I made an appointment for a specific time, I expected the doctor to see me at that time.  No excuses.

The more experience I have as a patient, though, I believe that’s the wrong approach. I don’t want a doctor who schedules patients in carefully allocated appointment slots and watches the clock, kicking people out when their time is up.  Sometimes things happen.

When one of my children was an infant, we went in for a routine check-up and the doctor noticed a strange lump.  A clock watcher could have said, “Your time is up. You need to make a new appointment — preferably soon — about that lump.”  He didn’t.  He called in a colleague to take a look and they consulted some of their medical reference books.  The consulting doctor then resumed her schedule (running behind), while my daughter’s doctor made some phone calls, then ushered me into his office to use his phone and make an urgent appointment to see a specialist at Children’s Hospital.  It seemed like a whirlwind to me, but took about an hour.  That hour he spent on my child was an hour that he was scheduled to see someone else’s child.  He spent the rest of the day behind schedule, but not due to lack of respect for people’s time. Rather, due to caring about the health of a patient.

I think we need to adjust our thinking.  What if we viewed medical appointments like airline flights?  We would show up early without complaining.  The airline industry has to check everyone in just like the doctor’s office does.  While doctor’s offices don’t need to x-rayed our luggage, they do need to verify insurance coverage and document receipt of copays.  The airline wants people there at least an hour before the flight; we should be happy that medical appointments only need us there 15 minutes early!

Last week’s newscast showed footage at a jam-packed airport where flights had been delayed.  Nobody was ranting and raving about having their schedule thrown off. It was inconvenient, but nobody was demanding a refund or billing the airlines for their time lost.  Everyone knows when we buy our tickets that the airline will try to depart the airport on time, but that things sometimes come up to cause delays.  People just make the best of the situation.  We need the same mindset when we need medical care.  Doctors try to keep to the schedule, but sometimes there are delays.  We just need to make the best of it.

What are our options?

  • Asking for the first appointment in the morning can help.  In theory, there have been fewer chances for things to go wrong with the schedule if you’re the first patient of the day.  Note, however, that if your doctor rounds on patients in the hospital before opening the clinic, that the first appointment in the clinic is not the first patient of the day, so the doctor could still be late.
  • Asking for the first appointment after lunch allows for catch-up time to counteract any delays in the morning’s schedule.
  • Taking the last appointment of the day almost guarantees that the doctor will be running behind.
  • Doctors are swamped in December, with people trying to fit in everything they can before the end of the year.
  • Doctors tend to have much more space in their schedules in January (because charges are applied to your insurance deductible, which means that appointments in January are out-of-pocket).
  • Leave yourself a cushion.  If your appointment is for 10:00, don’t have somewhere else you must be by 11:00.  Expect that the doctor might be running late and allow time.
  • If you’ve allowed a cushion, but not enough, be polite. Once I was scheduled to teach a class at 1:00. I couldn’t be late.  My doctor’s appointment was at 11:00 and I knew the office closed for lunch, so I thought I had plenty of time.  Unfortunately, the doctor was so far behind that he worked through lunch.  I explained that I would need to reschedule since at that point I couldn’t get a sub to teach my class. I wasn’t mad, but couldn’t stay. Rescheduling might not be ideal, but getting one patient out the door helps the doctor be a little less behind, and gets patients where they need to be next.  When you reschedule, take a first-appointment of the day to reduce the odds having a repeat experience.
  • Friday after Thanksgiving is a shopping day and nobody wants to be at the doctor’s office.  I can’t speak for every doctor in every year in every city, but my limited experience shows the years that I’ve checked my doctors, this is a great day to get an appointment. The doctor will be running on time, and even has extra time.
  • Avoid Mondays.  Everyone who has issues arise over the weekend phones the doctor and tries to get in on Monday. It’s a zoo. Avoid the pharmacy on Mondays, too (same reason).  Likewise, on Fridays people try to squeeze in to see the doctor before the weekend.  Specific offices might have variances in their schedules, but in general, people claim that Wednesdays are best.  If this matters to you, ask the staff in your doctor’s office to see which days they believe run most smoothly.

Scheduling a medical appointment isn’t the same as taking a class at a specific time, nor is it like meeting someone for lunch.  It’s more like scheduling an airline flight — the appointment time is a hopeful estimate of when the doctor will be able to see you.  We can make our lives a lot easier if we recognize that delays are inevitable and plan accordingly.

Edit to add: Mondays.

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9 thoughts on “When the Doctor is Running Late

  1. You make some great points. Like you, I know if my rheumy is running late it’s because she spends the time her patients need. On the flip side, I fired my first rheumatologist because he was SO late. I had two appoints, both at 11:00 am and it was after 4:00 pm both times before I got in. The first time I hadn’t had breakfast and had to skip lunch because I was trapped in the waiting room. He didn’t care. He had a sign in his waiting room that said if you didn’t like the appointments running late, then find another doctor, so I did. 🙂

  2. I totally agree. I’d prefer a doc who will take the extra time if needed. I did have to laugh at a recent appt with my doc though. I was one of the last appointments and he was running really late. He apologized and said the first person of the day was late and got the schedule off. So, I made sure I was the first person of the day my next appointment and showed up early. I waited in the tiny room for over 30 minutes. 😀

    • Wow! I have, unfortunately, been that first appointment of the day who was late. I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and even though I try to allow extra time to accommodate traffic variations, I didn’t allow for 15mph on the freeway. I apologized and said that I understood if they needed to reschedule me. The two appointments after me were also stuck in traffic, so it worked out, but it did put the doctor behind for the entire morning.

  3. I agree to a point but when I am the first appt of the day and consistently have to wait 45 min to an hour it is a problem. My neurologist just runs late from the jump. Because I work and he has no evening hours I have to get the first appt to have any hope of getting to work at a reasonable time. Thank goodness I only see him yearly. My family doc is the same way but since I get an hour for lunch and she is right down the street I generally am ok. My rheumatologist is spot on time 95% of the time. Very lucky there.

    • Consistently being behind schedule is suboptimal. Neuro could be seeing new strokes in the hospital, so that’s a tough one. Maybe some days of the week are better than others? Yay for rheumatologists 🙂

  4. I’ve just been diagnosed with RA so don’t know too much about waiting for rheumatologists, but my husband is a retinal surgeon and tells me that sometimes his patients have to wait hours for him if something comes up with another patient. Last night he got a call and went in to his office at 10:30 p.m. to check a patient who was in pain and then left at 6:00 a.m. this morning to take the patient into the operating room. He called me when it was all over very unhappy and worried that he won’t be able to save the eye due to infection. So even my husband’s earliest patients of today day had to wait hours to see him and who knows what will happen later as things continue to pile up. I hope they aren’t too upset because such an event could happen to them too. I never know when my husband will come home in the evening but I always expect that he will be late.

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