You’re probably intimately familiar with the following scenario: You bust your ass to make it to a routine doctor appointment on time—perhaps even arriving 15 minutes early, as is often requested—only to wait…and wait…and wait…to be called back to see your provider. The minutes tick by and you start to worry that you aren’t going to make it to your shift on time or be able to pick your kid up from school. And if you had to fast or drink a lot of fluids before your appointment and are thus sitting in the waiting room hungry and/or full of piss? Come on. But even when that’s not the case and you don’t have anywhere else you need to be urgently, it can still be super irritating.

Or maybe the extended wait happens after you’ve been taken back to an exam room, had your vitals taken, repeated the long list of current prescriptions you definitely confirmed via the patient portal before your visit, and put on a gown. Once you’re alone in there with the door closed, you can feel entirely forgotten about…. And finding someone to ask what’s going on necessitates shuffling around the hallways pantsless and in your socks. Is it even worth it at that point, given how much time you’ve already invested?

The SELF team recently got fired up when talking about this topic; our executive editor was live Slacking us from her ob-gyn’s office, and we were all pissed on her behalf. We wanted answers! How long is too long to wait to be seen, and at what point is it okay to say to the receptionist or medical assistant, Sorry, but I have to go? I asked three doctors from SELF’s medical advisory board for their perspective. Here’s what they told me.

There is such a thing as “too long” to wait for a doctor visit—and it’s okay to say you have to leave.

There’s no universally agreed-upon duration, but for straightforward, routine appointments (like your annual physical, a Pap smear, a prescription refill, etc.), the physicians I spoke with say that, generally, 20–30 minutes past your scheduled time is the outer bounds of acceptable—meaning if you’ve been waiting that long and want to leave, that’s reasonable. Jason H. Szostek, MD, an internist and assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, says that if he is personally being seen by a doctor, he’ll give them 30 minutes—“only because I’m privy to all the challenges and unseen responsibilities.”

Mathew J. Devine, DO, Rochester Regional Clinical Campus dean at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Pennsylvania, says that it depends on how long your appointment was supposed to last. If you had a 30-minute appointment and you’ve been waiting for 30 minutes, or, worse, 45, he’d consider that to be too long. But that brings up another question: How many of us are actually told when booking how much time we’ll get with our provider? Dr. Devine agrees that this is a problem—“I’m not told when I go see my doctor either”—and says offices could be more upfront about it. (Until that happens, you may want to just ask during the initial scheduling conversation.)

If you’ve been sitting in reception for ages but don’t want to make a fuss or don’t think you’re “allowed” to leave, know that all three doctors I spoke with were extremely chill about the idea. “Patients are always welcome to reschedule if their schedule doesn’t allow additional time,” Brintha Vasagar, MD, MPH, the director of the Bayhealth Family Medicine Residency Program in Delaware, tells SELF. “It’s really a personal decision of whether it would be less time to wait in the moment versus taking the additional time away from family or work on a different day. We know you’re busy and are never offended if you need to reschedule—just let your medical assistant know and they can help you.”

It’s also fine to politely follow up if it’s been a while and you’re getting antsy or worried about making it out of there soon. “Just say, ‘Hey, I’ve been waiting for 45 minutes and I wanted to check in because I need to get back to work,’ or ‘I need to go pick the kids up at school,’” Dr. Devine says. Being proactive like this is a good idea because the doctor may have a little flexibility to shuffle things around and see you ASAP.

This remains true even if you’re already in a room wearing a gown—you can just get dressed and get going, Dr. Vasagar and Dr. Szostek say. (Dr. Devine says he actually doesn’t have patients change until he’s already come to check in with them: “I just feel like that’s not good form if it’s cold.”) Dr. Szostek also notes that if you need help getting your clothes on, you should call the office’s main number from your cell phone, so the receptionist can send someone back to assist you.

If you feel embarrassed or guilty asking for updates or saying you need to reschedule, consider that politely inquiring about when exactly you’ll be seen for your scheduled appointment is about the lowest form of self-advocacy that exists in a health care setting. Yes, our system is overburdened, but that doesn’t mean that your needs don’t matter—and speaking up about a ridiculously long wait time isn’t that big of a deal, all things considered! And if a provider is super nasty to you because you had the gall to try to reschedule after an hour-long wait, that tells you a lot about how willing they are going to be to hear your other concerns.

Knowing how doctors offices work can help you adjust your expectations.

While it’s easy to blame your doctor when you’re in this situation, it’s clear that health care workers aren’t enjoying this any more than we are. Everyone I spoke with feels very guilty about running late, and says their colleagues do as well.

But if they don’t want it to be like this and we don’t want it to be like this, then why exactly is it like this? Dr. Devine says the problem starts with appointments being too short to begin with—e.g., a person is booked for 15 or 20 minutes, but really needs 30 or 40 for everything they want or need to cover—and primary care doctors’ days are scheduled back to back with little room for flexibility. (The reason routine visits are only meant to last 15 minutes could be a whole other article, but the TL;DR is that insurance reimbursements for primary care visits are low and seeing patients at a superfast clip is your doc’s best chance of generating enough revenue to pay for their staff and overhead—but even still it’s often not enough, and it’s a big reason why the US is dealing with a PCP shortage.)

“There are systemic and clinician issues contributing to this problem, and I personally believe the systemic issues outweigh the individual ones,” Dr. Szostek says. “The greatest issue is that we have no time between patient appointments so there’s no margin of error. There are so many ways to get behind and so many responsibilities outside of simply seeing patients—lots of unseen work.” And it only takes one thing going wrong to throw off an entire day’s schedule.

Dr. Szostek and Dr. Devine say that documentation plays a big role in all of the delays. Ideally, right after a provider sees you, they’ll update your record and keep the billing process moving…. But doing that takes time, and it’s not accounted for in their schedule. If they are already running behind, this step makes everything worse; alternatively, if they don’t stop to complete it right away, then they’ll end up with a huge backlog.

Health care providers are also dealing with the same annoying and beyond-their-control complications most of us encounter at work these days: glitchy software, meetings that could have been emails, inefficient-but-somehow-impossible-to-change workflows, coworkers who slow things down, and unreasonable expectations for output driven by late-stage capitalism. “They’re not sitting there checking what they’re going to do this weekend and googling stuff and watching Netflix and hanging out—there really is active work happening,” Dr. Devine says.

If your appointment is running late, it’s also worth keeping in mind that the person across the hall from you might be receiving bad, intense, or just complicated health news. “I try to be on time for all of my patients, but if they have to wait, it usually means a patient before them is having a rough day,” Dr. Vasagar says. “I would want extra time to ask my physician questions if I was finding out I had cancer or navigating dementia, and I think most of my patients would want the same.”

Dr. Devine agrees: “Sometimes this is serious stuff you’re going over, [stuff] that’s very important and could be life-threatening, [stuff] that you need to be able to address and take care of,” he says.

There are a couple of things you can do to avoid long wait times.

If long wait times are a big issue for you and are keeping you from getting necessary preventive care, try this strategy, which all three doctors I spoke with recommended: Whenever possible, book the first appointment in the morning or the one immediately after lunch, as these are the most likely to be running on time. You can also ask when you first arrive at the office (and again when you’re put in a room) what the wait time that day is looking like—and let them know at that point if you have a hard out.

And all of us should do our part to practice good appointment etiquette: Show up on time (or early, if that’s requested), and confirm during check-in how much time you’re scheduled for. If it’s only 15 or 20 minutes, be economical with it. Plan to give your doc a quick rundown of everything you want to go over when they first come into the room so they can calibrate accordingly. Doing this also gives them the ability to tell you up-front if something necessitates a separate follow-up. “We would love to spend as much time as we can with every single person, but that would mean that we would never leave the office,” Dr. Devine says. “So we do our best to try to get those visits within an appropriate time frame.”


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