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.

PT Resources

When you have RA, a physical therapist should be part of your treatment team.  It’s important to strengthen the muscles around joints so that the joints will work more smoothly.

Unfortunately, many PTs are most interested in sports injuries.  They merely tolerate older patients with their age-related needs, and know next to nothing about the various types of arthritis caused by an overly-energetic immune system.  Fortunately, the exercises to strengthen any given muscle group are very similar regardless of the need for rehab.  Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to look around for a PT who either knows about RA, PsA, AS, etc., or who is interested in learning.  If you find a PT who is bored stiff and consequently has eyes wandering around the room instead of watching to make sure patients do their exercises properly, run the other direction!  You want someone who will ensure that you’re using proper technique.

I was lucky enough to find a physical therapist who had worked near a rheumatology clinic and knew tons of tips to help people with RA.  Little things like:

  • It matters which way you turn the doorknob. When you open doors, turn the knob toward your thumb, not toward your pinkie (which is backwards from the way I naturally turn doorknobs).
  • When shopping, protect your fingers.  Always get a cart on wheels.  Those small baskets are handy when you’re only buying a few items, but they can accelerate joint damage in fingers.

Most PTs will provide a handout to help you remember your exercises.  Save them in a notebook so that you’ll be able to refer back to them in the future.

If you want to try the Dr. Google method (which is rarely a good idea), consider

Schedule time in your busy do to make sure your muscles will do their jobs, to keep you as active as possible while taking a minimum number of pills :)


Treatment. Yeah, that’s been interesting. My insurance company denied the PA for me to continue with a medicine that has worked quite well for five years.  I am appealing.  Meanwhile, my doctor’s office has provided samples.  It’s a little weird to be handed $7K worth of medicine samples to tide me over during the appeal process.

The summer has been crazy.  Those whose blogs I subscribe to have filled my inbox with updated posts, but I have rarely clicked through to comment (although I mean to).

My two younger sons continue to participate in sports. This involved 83 events in May and June, plus practices. In July I collapsed from exhaustion — which I count as a victory. In the months before my diagnosis, I pretty much had to be home by noon because I was wiped out by then. Keeping on the go like I did is a testament to the effectiveness of my treatment.  When I was first diagnosed, there is no way my kids could have participated in sports.  Now they can.

In addition to all the sports, spring saw my older daughter fundraising.  She left the country July 1 for a training program to do medical missions work. She will go to Kolkata next and will spend two months in India, followed by one month in Bangladesh.  She is scheduled to be home for Christmas.

My younger daughter leaves next week for college. She’s planning to earn an exercise science degree and then apply to grad school to become a physical therapist.  We’ve been doing all the normal stuff one does to get a child ready to leave for college.

My oldest is about to begin his senior year of college (still a 4.0 engineering student).  He had an internship in Houston over the summer, but called one weekend and said that Christmas was too far away; he wanted to come for a weekend visit.  On that visit, he brought a very nice young lady for us to meet. Guess my kids are growing up.

We will be down to only two kids in the house this fall. The older one has developed an intense weight training workout and spent a couple hundred dollars of his own hard-earned money on some basketball skill-drills in an effort to improve his game.  Both boys are playing sports this fall before basketball begins in winter, too.  Fortunately the older one got his driver’s license over the summer, so I won’t have quite so many chauffeuring duties.

I saw my rheumatologist, and she is ambivalent about my official diagnosis.  Despite the dermatologist’s report, she sees no reason to switch my diagnosis from RA to PsA.  Her philosophy is that my diagnosis can be whatever will get my medicine approved by insurance, and it doesn’t really matter what label is used.

In the beginning, when I first was referred to rheum, I had follow-up appointments every two months.  In time, those follow-ups have gotten further and further apart.  Now I don’t have to go back for six months.  There was a time that I would have been appalled at seeing a doctor twice a year.  Now I’m thrilled that it’s only two instead of six.  It’s amazing how perspective can change.