THE BLOG

The Real Reason Your Wait At The Doctor's Office Is So Long

01/30/2016 01:48 am ET | Updated Jan 30, 2016
  • Inga Newspaper columnist and freelancer, author of book Inga Tells All. Lives in San Diego, CA with husband Olof and granddog Winston

I was hugely dismayed to walk into a local doctor's office recently and see the following sign:

Please be advised that your waiting time could be extensive. If you are unable to continue your wait, please let the receptionist know and she will reschedule your appointment. Thank you for your understanding and patience as the doctor takes the time to provide excellent medical care to all.

Now that I've been there, here's the translation:

We make absolutely no effort to schedule in any meaningful way or to respect the time and comfort of our patients. Be prepared to sit here all afternoon because we have egos the size of Connecticut and think the sun rises and sets on our board certified tushies. Should you get so fed up that you leave, our hostile office staff will assure you that the same thing will happen the next time so you might as well suck it up and stay since you've already paid for parking. Regardless, we're keeping your co-pay.

They weren't joking about the "extensive." Sorry, guys: this is ridiculously bad management disguised as dedicated health care. All medical offices - in fact, anyone in a field that books appointments - has to figure out appropriate scheduling. Failing to even try is just rude and disrespectful. What part of the word "appointment" do they not get?

A glutton for punishment, I confess I had actually had contact with this specialist group once before in 2012. My then-primary care doctor had referred me there for a consult but merely achieving a human to schedule an appointment took some 14 phone calls over three days. Even during business hours, I kept getting a message to "please call back during business hours."

On the third day, I systematically tried every one of the eight options but got a recording on all of them (even the one for doctors which I confess gave me a certain perverse pleasure). On Option 6, the authorizations line, a truly crabby troll chastised people for taking up her time by calling, admonishing them that if it hadn't been at least two weeks, don't bother leaving a message.

On my first appointment there in 2012, I waited a little over two hours in a waiting room that was so packed that people - elderly people - were standing. When I came back to review my test results, I waited an hour and forty minutes. I refused to come back a third time.

So what possessed me to go back there again? My new primary care doctor wanted me to have another consult with a different doctor in this group. Please note that there are no lack of doctors in this specialty in San Diego. (These folks must throw one helluva Christmas party that they get all these referrals.) When I called, sure enough, I got voicemail. But in fairness, I would like to note that their voicemail now sports a less cranky troll who notes that if has been less than 14 days for an authorization, "please be patient." They still don't want you to leave a message, but the delivery is oodles better. Sometimes that's all you can hope for in a doctor's office-- that they're less rude than they used to be.

I was about to search out a different specialist the next morning when an actual human returned my call from the day before. The prompter response gave me hope that they had changed in the last three years. But then I arrived and saw the sign.

Now one might think that the right approach would be to come at least an hour late. Don't even think it. They are clear that they expect you on time even if they aren't.

I had the prior week's New York Times crossword puzzles in my purse in case I had to wait. I checked in and filled out all the usual medical history forms clearly indicating why I was there. Before they called my name, I still had time to do the Saturday crossword which, I may say, is usually a bear.

I was encouraged when I was taken to an examining room and told that the doctor would be "right in." "Right in" in their world turns out to be a half hour and I had done the Friday puzzle and started on the Thursday.

When the doctor arrived, he asked me why I was there (um, it's on all those forms I filled out) and when I told him, he handed me a brief questionnaire asking me to check which of the following 10 symptoms I had. I quickly checked off the five that applied to me and handed it back. "No," he says, "I want you to really look at it. I'll be right back."

"Right back" meant going to see another patient. In the meantime, I managed to finish the Thursday puzzle and even start on the Wednesday.

The doctor reappeared and we reviewed my case. Then he stood (bad sign) and headed for the door. "Let's have you take off your shoes and socks," he says. My shoes were slip-ons. "Ready!" I chirped, hoping to forestall his exit. But he'd already gone to see another patient.

Unfortunately, the earlier-in-the-week puzzles are a lot easier and I finished both Wednesday and Tuesday, now finding myself staring at the walls. That's when I noticed the sign on the cabinet:

If you have ANY medical problems after your appointment or if your condition worsens, call immediately and make an appointment to see the doctor. We really care!

Of course, the worsening of your health was probably caused by the 200 point increase in your blood pressure from sitting in their waiting room all afternoon. Another appointment would probably be the death knell. I love the idea that you're supposed to call. Except, of course, that they don't answer their phones. By the time they responded, you'd already be embalmed and on display at your local mortuary.

In fairness, did I feel I got a good, if installment-driven, medical consult? Check. Was he nice? Double check. Go back again? Not on your life. Because no routine doctor's appointment should take five puzzles.

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