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Why is my doctor always late?

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

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It’s annoying isn’t it? You took the 10:00 appointment thinking: this is perfect. I can leave work and take my break at 9:30, run over to the clinic and check in for my appointment by 10:00, get my throat checked out by 10:15, be out of there by 10:30 and be back at work before my break is over by 10:45, 11:00 at the latest. No one will even know I’m gone. Easy peasy.

But in reality, you get to the clinic at 9:58. Turn in your insurance card and get a stack of forms to update in return. By 10:05 you are officially checked in. Today you get lucky and get called back for vital signs and weigh-in by 10:10. You get “roomed” and checked in by the medical assistant by 10:15. After she updates some medical history in the computer and asks why you’re there today, she leaves and tells you “the doctor will be in with you shortly”. It’s 10:20. You then flip through a June 2017 issue of Good Housekeeping for the next fifteen to twenty minutes, each minute your blood pressure rising and your anger worsening until the doctor finally opens the door at about 10:35 (which, incidentally, is the time you had originally anticipated checking out).

WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?! WHY ARE YOU SO LATE?! (You either choose to say this out loud angrily or say it smiling through gritted teeth or silently in your head while cursing your doctor’s name.)

Here are a few scenarios that could have occurred in the same time period of 9:58 to 10:35 for your doctor:

  1. A) Your doctor was with the patient in the room next door discussing something like oh, maybe cholesterol or even foot fungus, and trying to wrap things up. Right before saying “ok, Mr H, I’ll see you next month….”, Mr H begins to cry and says “Dr, my wife was just diagnosed with breast cancer….”. Your doctor gives Mr H a hug and sits with him for a few extra minutes because he and his wife have been patients for the last 15 years.

  2. B) Your doctor was at his desk trying to finish writing up the last note on the computer when the medical assistant tells him that there is a cardiologist on the phone who wants to speak with him urgently about a mutual patient who needs a cardiac study as soon as possible.

  3. C) Your doctor was asked to see a patient who showed up for an appointment on the wrong day. Her appointment is scheduled for tomorrow but thought it was today but she is elderly, lives 45 minutes away, doesn’t drive and her son took today off to drive her here. So your doctor squeezed in a visit for this elderly patient between appointments so that she did not have to reschedule and find another ride.

  4. D) The patient with the appointment prior to yours showed up 10 minutes late but was checked in anyway (because if you showed up only 10 minutes late to your appointment, wouldn’t you insist on being checked in still?). Despite the now very shortened appointment time, he still insisted on discussing all of the concerns he had originally planned on discussing on his list… all 10 concerns… now shifting the schedule significantly.

  5. E) Your doctor was seeing a patient for a refill for an antidepressant but the patient admitted to being suicidal. Your doctor then had to make sure that everything was in place to get this patient to an appropriate level of care emergently.

I have been in each one of those scenarios as a physician. I have kept patients waiting for longer than I wanted and I hated it every single time because I have also been a patient in the exam room waiting and it is not pleasant. It feels rude. It feels disrespectful of my time. I get it. I really do but the next time you are sitting in the exam room flipping through that 2017 copy of Good Housekeeping getting angrier and angrier, consider that maybe just maybe Mr. H in the next room might need a hug and a couple of extra minutes with the doctor because his wife was just diagnosed with cancer. (You DO however have my permission to be very angry at the outdated 2017 Good Housekeeping issue).

“Finn”, watercolor, gift for a friend 😊


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