Why you wait at the doctor’s office

Today, we’re going a bit off the diet and nutrition norm and giving some insight into a common gripe about our healthcare system, waiting at the doctor’s office. 

We’ve all spent too long sitting in the uncomfortable brown upholstered chairs with the wooden arms reading 3 month old issues of TIME Magazine.  If the wait is long enough we may even curse that the puzzles in the Highlights magazine were already completed

We shouldn’t have to wait 30 minutes before being taken back to an exam room, only to wait 15 more minutes until the doctor arrives.  It’s aggravating.  Especially if you took time off work or have a sick kid with you.  So what’s the deal?  Is the doctor’s office just that badly mismanaged? 

Well, maybe.  But most likely it’s other factors.  And although it may not help calm the seething frustration, it can be useful to know exactly what is causing the delay.  The delay is caused by….sick people. 

Ok, duh.  There’s sick people in a doctor’s office.   But it’s not just sick people, it’s actually sick people not knowing how sick they are.  Let’s first look at how a typical doctor’s office sets appointments:

  • A typical office appointment schedule works like this.  For each type of appointment (i.e. wellness exam, acute illness, chronic illness checkup)  a certain number of minutes is allotted.  Say, 15 minutes for a chronic illness exam, 30 minutes for acute illness, 45 minutes for wellness exam (full physical).
  • Each doctor’s office sets its own allotments and appointment ratios.  For example, in a typical day there may be allotments for 5 chronic illness exams, 2 physical exams, and 10 acute illness exams.  They may also leave time for emergency appointments.  Each office is slightly different, but most follow this general pattern.

So, if the doctor’s office has allotted 15 minutes for a chronic illness and the time spent with the patient runs over, the next scheduled appointment will be late.  Why does an appointment run late?  Well, as we said the patient doesn’t know how sick they are.

          An Example: Farmer Dave comes in to see the doctor for his twice yearly blood pressure check.  Typically this appointment is for the doctor to check Farmer Dave’s blood pressure, ask questions about how he’s feeling, or maybe review the log of his blood pressure readings the doctor asked him to record since their last meeting.  Everything looks fine. 

But, while performing his usual exam, the doctor notices something strange about Farmer Dave’s heart sounds.  Since Farmer Dave is only there for his blood pressure check (a 15 minute allotment), he’ll have to schedule another appointment to address the potential heart issues, right?  Of course not.  Now a 15 minute appointment may turn into an hour exam.  And, you’re left sitting in the waiting room discovering an artery-clogging recipe for Chicken a la King in a really old issue of Southern Living. 

Farmer Dave is just one example.  There are dozens of other reasons an appointment may run over.  A doctor getting called to the hospital for an emergency is another common schedule busting problem.

This info may serve as little comfort when you’re being inconvenienced.  So check back for Friday Focus when I’ll give ways to minimize your time spent in the waiting room.


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