This is a Seinfeld episode waiting to happen.
The Doctor Will See You … Eventually
By LESLEY ALDERMAN
“How much of human life is lost in waiting!” Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented in his 1841 essay “Prudence.”
Lately that observation has begun to seem particularly keen. I just did a quick tally: Over the past month, I have spent a total of six hours in three different medical offices, and nearly half of that time was spent just waiting to be seen. In one month alone, I lost three hours of this “human life” dawdling in waiting rooms.
No one likes to be kept waiting. But it’s particularly annoying to spend an hour or more in a waiting room when you’re self-employed, like me; when you bill by the hour, as many lawyers, architects and designers do; or when you’re just plain busy.
Lisa Qiu, 23, an inventor in Manhattan, recently waited for 50 minutes to see her gastroenterologist. During the wait, the receptionist quizzed Ms. Qiu about her bills and asked her to fork over that day’s co-payment.
When the doctor finally called her in, “she didn’t bother to apologize,” said Ms. Qiu.
Some consumers are clearly getting fed up. When MedPageToday.com, a medical information Web site, recently asked readers if they thought patients who were kept waiting for a scheduled appointment should get a discount on their bills, nearly half of the 3,200 respondents said yes. And 16 percent said that a discount wasn’t necessary but that waiting patients should get a small token, like a gift card, that compensated them for being inconvenienced. Thirty eight percent said no acknowledgment was necessary.
Nationwide, the average wait time to see a doctor last year was 23 minutes, according to the health care consultants Press Ganey. Neurosurgeons have the longest wait times (30 minutes) and optometrists the shortest (17 minutes), according to the report.
In urban areas and among certain specialties, however, the waits can be much longer. Doctors work very hard, of course, and they are treating humans, not car parts. Emergencies can throw a well-planned day into chaos, and doctors who accept insurance may feel forced to overbook their schedules to assure they can bill for every minute of the day.
But still: Patients are paying customers who have financial and time pressures of their own.
“You should be seen within a few minutes of a scheduled appointment,” said Dr. Mark Gray, medical director of West Care Medical Associates, a primary care group in Manhattan with six offices. “But it goes both ways. We expect our patients to be respectful of our time, too.”
Rather than girding for combat, asking for discounts or storming out in a huff, consider a few ways to minimize (or at least cope with) protracted waits.
FIND A NEW DOCTOR “I will not see a doctor who keeps me waiting for hours without a very good excuse and a very big apology,” said Rachel Schwartz, 47, a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn. “I have begun to surround myself with great doctors who don’t make me wait and who are as respectful of my time as I am of theirs.”
If you set out to find a new doctor, be aware that an ultra-efficient practice may not be quite what you need, either. Many doctors schedule 10- to 15-minute appointments and speed through the day with robotic precision. A doctor who does not keep you waiting also may not spend much time with you. So be sure to ask about the length of appointments, too.
A CONCIERGE PRACTICE If you can afford it, you may have better luck with a doctor that does not take insurance. Dr. Catherine Hart, an internist in Manhattan, allows 60 minutes when seeing a new patient and 30 minutes for an annual checkup. She does not accept insurance, but she rarely keeps patients waiting and is available 24/7 by phone or e-mail.
By comparison, the average doctor’s visit today is around 19 minutes, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
“Everyone’s time is valuable,” Dr. Hart said. “We’re living in a medical mecca. Why put up with long waits?”
SPEAK UP Julia Lloyd, 48, has a rare heart condition that few doctors in the country are qualified to treat. When she was repeatedly kept waiting by her specialist, she spoke to him directly.
“By talking it over, I realized he wasn’t out playing golf or something. He was dealing with emergency situations and doing his best,” said Ms. Lloyd, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. After their conversation her doctor agreed to start informing the front desk when he was running late, so patients could know what to expect.
“As patients, we need to learn how to speak up,” Ms. Lloyd said. “At the same time, doctors need to learn to listen.”
BE ON TIME If you’re late, not only do you throw off the schedule for others, but you may be put at the end of a very long queue.
Ask whether you have a firm appointment. Some offices with long waits book patients in groups — say, at 9 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m., Dr. Gray said. Patients are seen in the order in which they arrive. If that’s how your doctor’s office operates, ask if you can have a scheduled appointment instead; if not, show up 15 minutes before the specified hour.
Book the first appointment of the day. You’ve probably heard this advice countless times. That’s because it works. Unless your doctor books blocks of patients at once or an emergency crops up, you’re likely to be seen pronto.
CHECK IN Before you leave for an appointment, call to find out if the doctor is running late, or ask the minute you walk in the door. Ms. Lloyd now goes out to a nearby cafe if her doctor is delayed.
NECESSARY APPOINTMENTS ONLY Sometimes small issues can be resolved without setting foot in the doctor’s office. If you’ve had a sinus headache for three days, for instance, you may not need an appointment. Your doctor’s office should be able to tell you over the phone that the best treatment is an over-the-counter antihistamine and an anti-inflammatory medication.
Still, it’s impossible to completely avoid time in the waiting room. Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, has resigned herself to the fact that “some New York doctors double book or schedule appointments so closely that they need to juggle two or more patients in different examining rooms.”
“When I’m left in the exam room, instead of sitting and worrying about when the doctor will show up, I now lie down on the examining table and focus on deep breathing,” said Ms. Boghosian, who lives in Lower Manhattan.
Prudent. Emerson would approve.