Waiting Room Survival Tips to Combat Boredom

Chairs arranged in medical building waiting room
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Waiting room boredom is real, and doesn't appear to be improving. Cartoonists and comedians have had much to say about the long wait times in the doctor’s office, and as is often the case, there is some truth behind these witticisms. A 2014 study found that the average wait time in a doctor's office in the U.S. is 20 minutes, 16 seconds and getting longer. Until a solution comes along, if one can at all, we have a number of tips for making your time spent waiting not only tolerable, but perhaps even productive and/or enjoyable.

There are a number of reasons for long wait time, but that doesn't make it any less aggravating. Our waiting room survival activities are broken down into things that are enjoyable, practical, funny, or educational, with special tips on waiting with children. Finally, we will talk about why long wait times may occur, and why having to wait for a doctor can actually be a good sign.

Enjoyable Activities

Instead of focusing on "losing" time, view your wait as an opportunity to do something you enjoy—something you wouldn't ordinarily do in a normal workday.

  • Take time to crack the spine of that novel you’ve been meaning to read. Don’t worry that you aren’t accomplishing anything (if you tend to be a doer). You are enjoying a few moments of pleasure that you deserve, and that's important!
  • Visit with another patient. Do you see anyone who looks lonely or anxious? Ask first, as the patient you notice may not wish to talk. On the other hand, it's surprising how fast a long wait time can slide by when you are taking the time to listen to someone who is lonely.
  • Bring a friend to talk to. It's not a coffee shop, but a doctor's waiting room can actually be a good time to talk without interruptions—that is, unless your doctor is on time.

Practical Activities

What are some activities that you dread and are always putting off? Using your wait time to address one of these chores not only makes the wait go faster but can free you up when you return home to your family. On the other hand, what are some things you would like to do (limited by the confines of a waiting room) but haven't been able to justify the time it takes (for example, playing with your phone)? Here are a few ideas:

  • Write a letter. Is there a letter you’ve been meaning to send but just haven’t gotten around to? Pack stationary, cards, and your address book—even stamps so you can mail the letter on your way home so it doesn't get lost. Keep in mind that in this day of email, people still appreciate receiving snail mail cards and letters. 
  • Balance your checkbook
  • Work on your taxes
  • Take a nap. First, let the receptionist know you may be sleeping so you don’t miss your appointment.
  • Make a master to-do list. Make a list of household things that need to be done, purchased, or repaired. Or check for grocery list apps for the iPhone.
  • Do your daily devotional or a meditation
  • File and/or polish your fingernails
  • In a waiting room, a patient recently asked, "What is iCloud?" Even if you've forgotten to bring a book or writing materials you will usually have your phone. If you have a smartphone, learn how to use functions that you aren't familiar with, organize your email or photos into folders, or hunt for new and interesting apps.

    Humorous Activities

    If you are really bored, it may help to resort to some humor. Consider these ideas:

    • Bond with your children by observing other patients in the waiting room and comparing them to your favorite cartoon characters (do this discretely).
    • For adults, play with the toys in the children’s section of the waiting room.
    • Search for funny memes and send them to family and friends.

    Patient Education

    Some researchers have proposed that waiting time wait times are actually an untapped opportunity. Unless you are being seen for a routine physical, you may have questions about your symptoms or those of a family member. Here are some ideas for using your wait time to support your physical health.

    • Make sure your medical history is accurate and updated. Some physician's offices will give you a sheet with current diagnoses and medications. While you wait you can make sure that the information is accurate (which often it isn't) so that it can be updated during your appointment.
    • For some concerns, you can ask if the office has questionaires. For example, many physicians have questionaires about anxiety or depression. Filling these out while in the waiting room can save time later on.
    • Write out or review questions for your visit. Is there anything you can add? Sometimes when you are bored you may think of things you would otherwise overlook. You may also wish to write down your goals for your visit. If you do this, make sure to speak up and share this with your doctor during your visit.
    • Ask the receptionist for patient education materials that you can review. Many offices have handouts on a wide range of medical conditions. Taking time to review these may help stimulate further questions you should ask.

      What to Pack in Your Waiting Room Bag

      If you only see your doctor once a year, it’s probably not worth the trouble of packing a waiting room bag. But if you happen to have several visits, for example, follow-up visits, consultations, second opinions, or chemotherapy visits, keeping a bag ready may ease the frustration of waiting. Consider packing some of these items:

      • The book you’ve been meaning to read. Make sure to pack a bookmark as well.
      • Your address book
      • Stationery and cards, stamps
      • Your favorite pen
      • Your knitting or crochet supplies
      • A lightweight blanket if you get cold
      • Crossword puzzles or sudoku
      • An iPod with headphones
      • Chargers for your phone/ipod/ipad
      • A water bottle and snacks. Choose snacks you can keep packed and ready such as granola bars.
      • Magazines: Yes, many waiting rooms provide magazines, though patient complaints about magazines are common enough that a 2014 study in the British Medical Journal addressed the issue. It turns out that the problem is not lack of new magazines, but the disappearance of new magazines from waiting rooms. If you like science, you don't need to worry. Disappearances were common for gossipy magazines (though the specific magazines weren't identified for fear of litigation), but not scientific magazines.
      • Going through chemotherapy can mean multiple wait times along with side effects that require extra caution. Check out this essentials list of what to pack for chemotherapy.

        Another reason to bring your own reading and writing materials is infection prevention, especially if you are immunosuppressed. In a 2017 study in Paris, researchers cultured magazines found in hospital waiting rooms. Along with normal skin bacteria, they found pathogens (bacteria and fungi that could potentially cause infections) such as Staphylococcal aureus, Enterococcus faecalis, Aerococcus viridins, and Aspergillus.

        Waiting With Children

        Waiting with children can be much more difficult than waiting alone. Consider the appetite and attention span of the typical child. Many waiting rooms provide toys and books, but it can be helpful to pack your own bag. You likely know what activities will keep your child's attention the longest, and if it's during flu season, or if anyone in the family has an immune system that's suppressed, you may wish to avoid the germs that live on waiting room toys (though, surprisingly, toys and books in waiting rooms are less "germy" than one would expect). Here are a few ideas for items:

        • Handheld electronic games
        • Your phone (or theirs)
        • An iPad
        • Water or juice, healthy snacks such as granola or cut up fruit
        • Coloring book and crayons or colored pencils. (Buying a new coloring book or markers and wrapping them in pretty paper can make this extra special.)
        • Books
        • Small toys such as action figures
        • Play I spy. If you’ve forgotten how this goes, you say "I spy" and your child tries to identify what you are looking at. For example “I spy something that is green and loves water” (an office plant).

        Why the Wait?

        At first glance, you may ask why doctors can't be on time—for example, as an attorney or accountant would be on time for an appointment. One of the problems is urgency. If you haven't finished going over your taxes, you can make another appointment in a week. Not so with a bloody nose, severe belly ache, or with a baby who chooses to be born at that moment. Unpredictability is another reason, especially in primary care. Receptionists schedule what they guess is an appropriate amount of time for an appointment. But when a headache could be related to mild seasonal allergies, or instead a brain tumor or stroke, this is a challenge.

        It's sometimes even the case that a long wait time is a good sign. While it's not always the case, it could be that the doctor who falls the furthest behind during the day is the one who is most compassionate and thorough. The backed-up doctor may be choosing to let patients wait (something that leads to further delays as she needs to apologize to each later patient), and arrive home late for dinner, in order to give a patient the time she would want a family member to receive in the same setting.

        Lack of time has been cited as the greatest barrier to practicing solid evidence-based medicine in primary care. And while it could be argued that physicians should simply schedule more time with each patient, the chance that this is under a physician's control is uncommon in modern medicine, at least if a physician hopes to remain employed.

        A Word From Verywell

        Getting upset about long waiting room wait times is unlikely to benefit your health, and is equally unlikely to change the system. Instead, being prepared and using your time in a way that helps you accomplish a task or at least enjoy your time might be just what the doctor ordered. In so many situations in life, reframing—or looking at the same situation in a different Light—can sometimes actually make that same situation become a positive rather than a negative.

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        Article Sources

        1. Shortest Average Wait Time for Doctors in Major Cities Increased One Minute Year Over Year. Business.com. March 26, 2014.

        2. Arroll B, Alrutz S, Moyes S. An Exploration of the Basis for Patient Complaints About the Oldness of Magazines in Practice Waiting Rooms: Cohort Study. 2014. 349:g762. doi:10.1136/bmj.g7262

        3. Ade M, Burger S., Cuntzmann A, Exinger J, Meunier O. Magazines in Waiting Areas of Hospital: A Forgotten Microbial Reservoir?Annales de Biologie Clinique. 1017. 75(6):673-681. doi:10.1684/abc.2017.1283

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