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Doctor running late? What you can do

Some patience is required. But if the wait is routine and interminably long, here are steps you can take.

By Karen Datko Jul 30, 2010 1:55PM

How many of you have arrived at the doctor's office (on time) and been forced to wait, be it 20 minutes, or maybe an hour or two? You inevitably think: Hey, I know you went to medical school (and have the student loan debt to show for it), but my time is valuable, too.

We are not totally powerless when this happens, says a post at The New York Times Bucks blog. From Bucks and other sources, we've come up with several possible courses of action.

 

But first, why does this happen? "Lockup Doc" wrote (and also linked to an American Medical News article for doctor's offices with chronic time-management issues):

Some of the primary reasons that doctors run behind schedule include emergencies, patients' visits taking longer than anticipated, and patients (ironically) arriving late to their appointments. Most of these situations are beyond physicians' control. Doctors also must return phone calls, speak with pharmacists and fill out many forms.

Thus, some patience is required. (Hint: Take a book or a magazine.) But what about the doctors who double-book? Jennifer Saranow Schultz wrote at Bucks:

Because insurers tend to pay a certain amount for each patient doctors see and each procedure they perform rather than for the time spent with a patient, doctors have an incentive to see as many patients as they can and often double-book patients for 10- to 15-minute appointment time slots.

So, the system seems stacked against us -- and it's bound to get worse as more people become insured under health care reform. What can we do?

  • When you schedule an appointment, explain the purpose of your visit so adequate time can be allotted to you. That may help.
  • Ask for an appointment at the start of the day or right after lunch. Otherwise, call before you leave home or work to see how long the wait is, and adjust accordingly.

What if you're forced to wait an unreasonable amount of time?

  • Unless you need immediate care, ask to reschedule, without financial penalty. If your doctor's staff is unresponsive, register your complaint when you finally reach the examination room, where hopefully you don't have to wait too long before the doc comes in.
  • Ask for a discount, Schultz suggests. That may or may not work depending on the doctor's and insurance company's policies. (Some people have tried sending the doctor a bill for their lost work time. It might make you feel better, but don't expect to get paid.)
  • Susan Cody wrote at EmpowHER that she lets her three small children make noise (not excessively) and roam around if the wait in the pediatrician's office exceeds 20 minutes -- just to remind the staff how long it's been.
  • If long waits are routine, find a new doctor (if one is available). I did that after I realized a doctor I'd picked always double-booked and that the wait was interminable.
  • Before you make an appointment with a new doctor, ask whether the physician double-books and what the average wait time is. If you don't like the answers you get, find someone else (not always possible if you live in a small town).

Some doctors work harder to minimize waiting time. Schultz described one practice that schedules longer exam times, among other steps, to prevent patients from backing up. To be seen there, you must pay a $199 annual membership fee. Sounds like a fair exchange.

Meanwhile, said "Jill of All Trades, MD" at KevinMD.com, patients can also help by:

  • Arriving early.
  • Telling the nurse exactly why you're there.
  • Not expecting too many problems to be dealt with in one visit.
  • Bringing your medications and logs, like those for blood pressure and blood sugar, with you.

Some doctors who commented at the Bucks post said they're kept waiting, too -- by the cable company, the plumber, etc. A Texas doctor wrote:

As a physician I find it intolerable for others to waste my time. I had a doctor's office visit this past year to see a gastroenterologist. I was advised to show up 30 minutes early to do the paperwork. I followed instructions and after waiting 45 minutes after the appointed time, I just walked out and made an appointment with another doctor who would respect my time. I always try to see my patients in a timely fashion. Doctors who do not are sloppy in their scheduling and I will not use them.

Schultz also suggested that you consider reporting a regular offender on a complaint website -- only, we might add, if you never plan to see that doctor again. That idea didn't go over well with some readers.

 

"Is that what readers of NYT should be doing now? Has medicine come to the same model as the dry cleaners?" one physician wrote, adding that "good medicine, like good food, takes time. We aren't serving a hamburger here -- we are making decisions that can have profound influences on a person's life."

 

Have you encountered doctors who routinely make you wait for an hour or more? What have you done?

 

More from MSN Money:

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