Imagine walking into your doctor’s office at your appointment time and being promptly ushered into the exam room, where your physician is waiting. Now snap out of it. Most Americans accept that waiting is a part of every doctor’s appointment. Recent research indicates that we’re spending slightly less time in the waiting room than in years past, but the lag still reduces patient satisfaction, according to surveys. Doctors know this, but sometimes there isn’t much they can do about it.

You can’t usually eliminate the wait, but you might be able to reduce it or at least make it useful. 

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It might not feel this way, but doctor’s office wait times are decreasing, according to a Vitals survey released earlier this year. They dropped an average of one minute, to about 19 minutes and 16 seconds, between 2014 and 2015. Of course, your location and the type of doctor you’re seeing matters. Emergency doctors and pain management specialists kept patients waiting the longest— more than 24 minutes on average— and doctors across Alabama averaged wait times of more than 23 minutes. 

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Vitals attributes the decline to various factors: an increase in the number of urgent care centers, more personnel— such as nurse practitioners— to share the patient care responsibilities and a focus on raising patient satisfaction levels. But when you’re on time or early to your appointment, even 19 minutes can seem far too long to wait.

Why we wait

In a 2014 survey of more than 20,000 American doctors, the Physicians Foundation found that 81 percent were at full capacity or overextended, up from 75 percent in 2012. That’s true despite the fact that doctors are seeing fewer patients per day, on average: 19.5, compared with 20.1 in 2012 and 23.43 in 2008. And it’s not that they aren’t putting in enough time at the office. Respondents reported logging an average of 53 hours per week.

One issue is that there is no way to predict how a doctor’s day will unfold, says Dr. Sachin Jain, chief medical officer of Cerritos, California-based CareMore Health System.

“Unpredictable situations come up— new challenging diagnoses such as cancer, social problems and behavioral health issues— that often require physicians to suspend ‘sticking to a schedule’ and focus on the patient in front of them,” Jain says.

Doctors are often notified first thing in the morning of a patient hospitalization, he adds. This becomes a priority and can throw the entire day off schedule. 

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Another problem: planning for patients who don’t show up. To remedy this, Jain says that many practices double-book. The doctor will still stay on schedule if about half of patients are no-shows. But if everyone keeps their appointment, patients will see significant delays.

Minimize your wait — or make the most of it

It can’t hurt to tell your doctor or the office staff if you feel you’re waiting too long, but be prepared to hear that other priorities required attention, Jain says.
“If the issue is really just poor practice management, then physicians should own that, too,” says Jain, “and patients should really signal to them that they expect and want better.” 

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You can’t make your doctor move faster or prevent other patients’ medical emergencies, but you can potentially minimize your wait and make the most of your time in the lobby.

Here are 6 ways to reduce your wait time at the doctor’s office:

1. Ask about wait times when you’re looking for a new doctor. You can also ask if the clinic double-books or if they have additional medical staff, such as nurse practitioners, to reduce your wait time.

2. Consider using an urgent care center when you’re in a hurry. But remember: Your insurance may not cover quicker providers at the same level as your regular physician.

3. When making an appointment, ask the receptionist at what days and times the clinic is least busy.

4. Find out how long you can expect to wait when you check in. If your wait takes longer, ask the receptionist when you might get in. This will let him or her know that you’re conscious of how the doctor is valuing your time.

5. Come prepared. Print and fill out any new patient paperwork beforehand.

6. While you wait, make a list of your current medications, your symptoms and any questions you want to ask the doctor. This helps ensure your time in the exam room is used efficiently.

It can be frustrating when you’re on time and your doctor isn’t. Rather than hoping he or she will be prompt next time, plan ahead to minimize the stress (and hopefully the length) of the waiting game, and don’t be afraid to voice your concerns about significant delays.