5 Ways to Beat the Waiting-Room Blues

A month before giving birth to her first child, Jacqueline Lisenby, 40, fired her doctor. “His reception area was crowded, the wait times were excruciating and when I finally got in to see him, he would rush through the appointment,” says Lisenby, a corporate recruiter in Nashville. “When he found out I was leaving the practice, he had the nerve to say I would not receive the personalized care I needed at my new clinic!”

Sadly, Lisenby’s experience isn’t unique. Although practices are paying more attention to patient satisfaction these days—witness all the offices that now offer Wi-Fi, coffee and computers—wait times have held steady at just over 20 minutes for the past five years, according to health-care portal Vitals.com. And we’re getting used to it: In a Health.com poll, 39 percent of respondents considered a wait as long as 30 minutes tolerable. “Many doctors simply have a patient roster that’s bigger than they can handle because they’re so fearful about not making enough money in this fee-for-service and managed-care climate,” notes Mark Murray, MD, a family doctor and president of Mark Murray and Associates, a health-care consulting firm in Sacramento, Calif.

Understandable, perhaps—but that doesn’t mean you have time to stare at bad waiting-room art or play Candy Crush on your phone all day. Make these smart moves to see your doctor faster, or at least find one who won’t leave you hanging.

Get the scoop on the best times
In general, the first appointment of the day and the one right after lunch have the shortest wait times—but not always. “At our office, the early hours before work are actually the busiest,” says Lynn Mitchell, who works at the front desk of Menlo Park Dental Excellence in Menlo Park, Calif. So hit up the receptionist for advice. Ask not only about the slots with the shortest waits but also whether the office books multiple appointments at the same time—a practice known as “wave scheduling,” Dr. Murray says—which means the doctor then takes patients in order of arrival. If your doctor’s office does this, show up early to beat the wave.

Choose your day strategically
To get in and get out quickly, avoid Tuesdays and Thursdays: Tuesday is the most popular day to visit the doctor, according to the online booking site ZocDoc.com, while Thursday sees the longest waits. Opt for an appointment on Monday, the day with the shortest in-office waits. (That is, unless you’re going to the pediatrician’s office, where Monday is the busiest.)

Call before you go
This is probably the simplest thing most of us don’t do. Phone your doc, and if you’re told he’s running behind, ask what time you should reasonably arrive. If you show up and find out there’s still a wait, see if you can leave your cell phone number while you go run errands, or get coffee and come back.

Complain (nicely)
If your doctor is chronically late, voice your concern to him. “Lead with a compliment, then bring up the long waits,” recommends James Merlino, MD, chief experience officer at the Cleveland Clinic (yep, they have a whole office devoted to improving patient experience!). You could say, “You’re an excellent doctor, but I get really frustrated when it takes 45 minutes or more to see you. Do you plan on making changes to address that problem?”

Physicians should apologize if they’re late, and if they’re dismissive, consider looking for a new physician—seriously. “Lateness can be fixed,” Dr. Merlino says. At the Cleveland Clinic, for instance, there are signs in the reception area that read: If you’ve been waiting for more than 15 minutes, let us know. And at the Continuum Center for Health & Healing in New York City, patients receive a survey after a visit that asks, among other things, how long they had to wait. Some offices go to great lengths to keep their schedules running like clockwork. Erica Rajabi, administrative director of NYU Langone’s Center for Musculoskeletal Care, monitors practitioners’ wait times on a weekly basis. “It’s about spacing out patients efficiently,” she says. It’s also about strategies like giving patients forms to fill out ahead of time. Otherwise, she says, “things slow down.”

Or just skip the visit entirely
A growing number of practices have nurses on staff who can order prescription refills or answer basic questions—like what to do about seasonal allergies or a cough—by phone. Some doctors also respond via e-mail, eliminating the need for in-person visits. What should you ask electronically? “Queries that require only short, uncomplicated answers, like ‘How often should I take this medication?’ or ‘Is it OK to exercise this soon after surgery?'” says Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, Health‘s medical editor. Anything more is worth a trip in—but hopefully not a long one.