Reasons Why You Spend So Long Waiting at the Healthcare Provider's Office

Patients are often frustrated that they make an appointment for a certain time, they arrive on time, yet they are kept in the waiting room for too long a time before they see the healthcare provider. When you understand why this happens, you can take steps to change it, or make it easier to tolerate.

Tips to Reduce Time Spent in a Doctor's Waiting Room
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Reasons for Long Wait Times

We lose our patience because we believe the time just has not been scheduled well. But on any given day, healthcare providers may not be sure what services they'll be performing for individual patients, and some patients require more time for their services than others.

Equipment may break down. An obstetrician may be delivering a baby. There may even be emergencies.

Understanding that it's the volume of patients and procedures, not the time spent per patient, that comprises a healthcare providers' income, it's easier to understand why they get so far behind, and why we are kept waiting.

What Is an Acceptable Waiting Time?

An acceptable amount of time to wait will vary by healthcare provider and the type of practice she runs. In general, the more specialized the healthcare provider, the more patient you may need to be. The fewer healthcare providers in any given specialty who practice in your geographical area, the more time you'll have to wait, too.

If you visit an internist who consistently makes you wait an hour, that is too long. If you find a brain surgeon who makes you wait an hour, that may not be unusual.

The fair wait time will also depend on the relationship you have with your healthcare provider. If you have been a patient for many years, and the healthcare provider usually sees you within a few minutes, but one day that stretches to a half-hour, then you know it's unusual. Try to be patient.

Make Appointments Strategically

To reduce your waiting time, use these tips when making an appointment:

  • Try to get the earliest appointment in the morning or the first appointment after lunch. During each of those times, you'll avoid a backed-up group of patients and you have a better chance of spending less time in the waiting room.
  • When you make your appointment, ask which day of the week is the lightest scheduling day. Fewer patients on that day will hopefully mean shorter wait times.
  • When you book your appointment, make sure the healthcare provider won't just be returning from a vacation or conference, or a period of time out of the office.
  • If the healthcare provider sees children as patients, then try not to book your appointment on a school holiday.
  • If possible, avoid Saturdays or evenings.

Deciding Whether to Wait

Once you get to the office for your appointment, ask the person at the check-in desk how long they think you'll be waiting. Then decide whether you want to wait that long and whether or not seeing that healthcare provider is worth that wait. If not, then reschedule.

If you're told the wait will be 15 minutes, then speak up on minute 16. The squeaky wheel does get the grease. You don't have to be loud or demanding, but being firm and definite is fair. Politely ask what the hold up is, and how much longer you'll need to wait. Again, decide whether the wait time is acceptable.

If the wait time you've experienced or you anticipate is unacceptable, then find a healthcare provider that doesn't make patients wait so long. This is possible for a primary care healthcare provider or a specialist you see on a regular basis for a long-term or chronic condition. It may not be possible for a sub-specialist or a healthcare provider who is in great demand.

You'll have to decide if that particular healthcare provider is worth the wait. You may have no choice.

Making a Long Wait More Tolerable

Your wait time will be less stressful if you are prepared to wait:

  • Leave yourself plenty of time. Don't create more stress for yourself by scheduling something else right on the heels of your appointment. If you have a 10 a.m. meeting, you may not want to schedule an appointment beforehand.
  • Take a good book, your knitting, and entertaining phone apps (plus earbuds) to pass the time.
  • Expect the appointment in total, wait time included, to last far longer than you think it will. If it's shorter, then you'll be pleasantly surprised. But if you account for a long period of time, ahead of time, then it won't be so frustrating to wait.

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.