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Helene Pavlov, M.D.

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Waiting, Waiting and Waiting ... Why Oh Why Do I Wait So Long At The Doctor's Office?

Posted: 03/10/10 03:18 PM ET

We have all been there. You rush to get to your doctor's office right at the time of your appointment and you wait and wait and wait. The national average door-to-doctor time in a study done in 2009 was at 21.3 minutes. This is up considerably from a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation done in 2003 that reported physician visits took 18.4 minutes in 2002 and 15.9 minutes in 1989. So why the long wait and why are we trending up?

As a doctor (and also a patient that has had to endure prolonged time in waiting rooms) I thought I could shed some light on this subject. What is most important for patients to understand is that every visit to the doctor is different. One patient will come in with a cold, another with a sprained ankle, possibly a head injury ... Every doctor needs to be prepared for just about any condition and different patients' personality. Some patients want the facts, "just the facts" and others need a lot of hand-holding and need the facts sugar coated. Many patients have questions and sometimes the doctor discovers other issues that need to be addressed.

Keep in mind also that insurance companies require doctors to fill out a lot of paperwork. Reporting and documentation is of the utmost importance and also takes time. Many physicians are now using technology to help with their reporting. During a recent visit to my physician, he entered the room with a computerized note pad and documented everything while he was in the room. I have been back a few times and have noticed he and his staff doing this with each and every patient. Moving away from paper is definitely improving on wait times; however, the documentation should not take away from patient time. I fear that the checklist may take priority to an educated general patient assessment and examination and the old time staple of touching the patient, even if it's just to take a pulse.

None of these excuses explain an overly long wait time but they do help to understand the reason. I anticipate that it will be about 15-20 minutes after the scheduled time before I see my physician.

At Hospital for Special Surgery Department of Radiology and Imaging we have taken steps to reduce the amount of time our patients have to wait. We recently implemented a pre-visit registration system. A day or two before a patient arrives one of our registrars call the patients and collects important information such as insurance demographics, etc. This has helped to reduce patient wait time and increase throughput. We have also improved our waiting areas, provide reading materials and a few times a week students from the local massage academy drop in to provide waiting patients with quick neck, upper back and arm massages.

Next time you are scheduling a doctor's appointment, ask if the doctor usually runs on time or late and if so, by how long. Speak to the doctor about the wait time if excessive; it never hurts to make constructive suggestions for improvement. Also, remember, stress elevates blood pressure so, ideally it is best to be a patient with patience and since waiting at the doctor's office is inevitable, my advice is bring a book to read.