Getting an Appointment

It’s getting harder than ever to get a healthcare appointment, whether it’s for your primary care doctor or for a specialist. I have a friend who was recently told he would have to wait weeks to see an oncologist after his pulmonologist discovered he had lung cancer.

I know someone else who was the victim of a merger of two infusion centers. He had been on a routine of getting blood drawn one week and then being scheduled to receive I.V. chemotherapy the next. Right after the merger, the doctors and staff were so overloaded that the office had no open appointments and his treatment regime was dangerously put on hold.

A study by Merritt Hawkins in 2014 looked at five medical specialties — dermatology, orthopedics, obstetrics and gynecology, cardiology, and family practice — in different parts of the U.S. They found the average cumulative wait time to see a physician for all five specialties was 19 days. The longest wait time to see a physician was 256 days for a dermatologist appointment in Minneapolis. Boston had the highest cumulative average wait time to see a physician: 45 days.

It’s maddening. Some experts say the challenge of getting seen is only going to get worse as baby boomers age, more people get access to health care and the physician shortage continues. And these long wait times to get an appointment aren’t just for your first visit with a new specialist. Even so-called “established patients” (people who have already been seen by the physician or practice) are experiencing long delays.

But there are some things you can do:

  • If you need to see a specialist, ask your primary care doctor or nurse practitioner to send your records and request that you be seen. The office staff are more likely to respond to a colleague’s request, especially when they have all your pertinent medical information in hand.
  • Ask the office staff for the best time to call to be more likely to be able to grab a just-cancelled appointment. For many offices, that’s around 2 p.m. for some reason.
  • Ask the office staff to call you if something opens up, but don’t count on it. In busy offices, it’s easy for a staff member to forget. But some offices do keep lists and work from them.
  • Convey urgency. For example, if you have a history of skin cancer and just found something worrisome, tell the staff member in some detail what you’re seeing and how quickly it has changed or grown. If you had surgery a few weeks ago and have a new symptom or problem, describe the situation. That may get their attention.
  • Book just-in=case appointments. You can cancel if you don’t need the appointment. But be sure to call a week or two ahead of time once you know the appointment isn’t needed. You don’t want to make it harder for the next person.


About Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN

I'm an experienced healthcare and science editor and journalist. But most of all, I'm a registered nurse with many years of experience working in hospitals. I've learned what patients and families need first hand. But I've also worked to improve hospitals and educate people about their health. I'm committed to helping people take charge of their health care and get what they need from a complex and often discouraging healthcare system.
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