Managing Your Practice

Don’t keep your patients waiting


Recently, the results of a survey of consumers regarding their health care experiences were reported by Carta Healthcare. As you might expect, a top complaint about doctors was time spent waiting to see them; 23% said they waited 30 minutes or longer. I’ve written about punctuality before, but this is such a ubiquitous problem that it bears repeating. Here are some suggestions:

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

Start on time. That seems obvious, but I’m always amazed at the number of doctors who admit to running late who also admit that they start late. If you’re in the hole before you even start, you can seldom dig yourself out. Sometimes an on-time start is the solution to the entire problem! If you doubt me, try it.

Book realistically. Everyone works at a different pace. Determine the number of patients you can comfortably see in an hour, and book only that number. If you want to see more patients, the solution is working longer hours or hiring physicians or physician extenders (or both), not overloading your schedule.

Time-stamp each chart. Pay attention to patient arrival times if your EHR records them, and step up your pace if you start to fall behind. If your EHR does not record arrival times or you are still using paper records, buy a time clock and have your receptionist time-stamp the “encounter form” that goes to the back with the patient. One glance at the stamp will tell you exactly how long that patient has been waiting.

Schedule all surgeries. If you haven’t scheduled the time necessary for a surgical procedure, don’t do it. It’s frequently tempting to “squeeze in” an excision, often because you feel guilty that the patient has already had to wait for you. But every unscheduled surgery puts you that much further behind. And hurrying through a procedure increases the risk of mistakes. Tell the patient that surgery requires extra time and it can’t be rushed, so you will have to schedule that time.

Work-ins come last, not first. Patients with urgent problems should be seen after scheduled patients. That may seem counterintuitive; receptionists often assume it’s better to squeeze them in early, while you’re still running on time. But doing that guarantees you will run late, and it isn’t fair to patients who have appointments and expect to be seen promptly.

Work-ins, on the other hand, expect a wait because they have no appointment. We tell them, “Our schedule is full today; but if you come at the end of hours, the doctor will see you. But you may have a wait.” Far from complaining, they invariably thank us for seeing them.

Seize the list. You know the list I mean. “Number 16: My right big toe itches. Number 17: I think I feel something on my back. Number 18: This weird chartreuse thing on my arm ...” One long list can leave an entire half-day schedule in shambles.

When a list is produced, the best option is to take it and read it yourself. Identify the most important two or three problems, and address them. For the rest, I will say, “This group of problems deserves a visit of its own, and we will schedule that visit.”

Ask if you can place the list (or a photocopy) in the patient’s chart. (It is, after all, important clinical information.) All of these problems are important to the patient and should be addressed – but on your schedule, not the patient’s.

Avoid interruptions. Especially phone calls. Unless it’s an emergency or an immediate family member, my receptionists say, “I’m sorry, the doctor is with patients. May I take a message?” Everyone – even other physicians – understands. But be sure to return those calls promptly.

Pharmaceutical reps should not be allowed to interrupt you, either. Have them make an appointment, just like everybody else.

There will be times, of course, when you run late. But these should be the exception rather than the rule. By streamlining your procedures and avoiding the pitfalls mentioned, you can give nearly every patient all the time he or she deserves without keeping the next patient waiting.

Incidentally, other common patient complaints in that survey were the following:

  • Couldn’t schedule an appointment within a week.
  • Spent too little time with me.
  • Didn’t provide test results promptly.
  • Didn’t respond to my phone calls promptly.

Now would be an excellent opportunity to identify and address any of those problems as well.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at

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