Is the Waiting Room Necessary?

I spent 40 minutes waiting to begin diagnostic tests preparatory to seeing my ophthalmologist. What a waste of my valuable time! And my calculations from data from the American Time Use Survey suggest that this is a standard problem: the average adult American spends four hours per year waiting for medical or dental care, with each wait averaging around 45 minutes.

Pricing this time out at even half the average wage rate, the cost amounts to about $5 billion per year. Seems like a lot, and very inefficient, but what is the alternative?

The only way that every medical provider could ensure no waiting would be for the provider to have downtime herself, in order to have unutilized resources, both of her time and the services of the capital stock used in the practice. I’m not sure what’s the right mix of provider and customer waiting; but as annoying as my waiting is, the current system may be economically efficient.


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  1. Trevor L says:

    Just an off the cuff theory: wouldn’t an easy option to take care of this problem would be to offer some sort of “express” option? I bet many patients would be willing to pay some extra dollars in order to ensure that they don’t have to wait (as long as the price is lower than their opportunity cost). Doctors, who now have extra profit, can limit the amount of patients they take on during (or directly before) the extra-paying customers’ time slot. Assuming the doctors do not lose money I bet that they would be more than willing to do it (they essentially would be getting paid to work less).

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  2. RZ says:

    I don’t mind waiting so much as I mind not being told that I would probably have to wait around X minutes. It’s amazing how clerical staff won’t tell you if the doctor/dentist is running behind and that your wait might be longer than the normal few minutes. I once had a dentist apologize to me for making me wait 30 minutes while I was in the patient’s chair already. That was nice of her, but it would have been more useful to have the clerk tell me that I’d likely be waiting for 30 minutes. I’d have been more prepared to wait rather than wonder what was going on.

    I try to get around waiting by taking the first or second appointment of the day – at that point, the doctor/dentist is usually not running behind by much.

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  3. David says:

    How much would you be willing and able to pay for no wait? What if your dr. had a “coach” and “elite” level of service. If you’re elite, you don’t wait or wait less. Perhaps they already do but hide it in some way.

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  4. peter says:

    We do not tolerate such waits from any other professional – attorney, investment advisor, hair stylist – with whom we engage.

    You’re the client and the payor, reimbursed or not.

    Find another doc!

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  5. Ken Davis says:

    I’m reminded of the cartoon with the receptionist explaining, “Your appointment with the doctor is at 10:00 a.m. The doctor’s appointment with you is at 11:45.”

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  6. Jon Luke says:

    I think the last thing they need is another signal as to how much more their time is worth than ours.

    Perhaps, at some point, there will be a point where enough people with gadgets like the iPhone will access WebMD and diagnose themselves, just like the jurors who have been informing themselves of their cases.

    I think the risk of the slippery slope is far worse than a mistrial.

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  7. Jonathan says:

    There are two ‘waits’ in seeing a doctor. The waiting to get an appointment, and the waiting in the waiting room.

    Your proposal would indeed reduce the waiting in the waiting room, but would increase the waiting for an appointment.

    Of course if you had more doctors, then that would definitely work!

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  8. Randy says:

    they could pay you for wait — like the Cosean post earlier. :) or, “mechanical turk” work to waiters, like confirming appointments, transcription, and let you earn your copay at $10 an hour.

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