Them Bones and Joints: While you’re waiting in the doctor’s office


Continuing from last month’s column about how an orthopedist’s office schedule can be disrupted, a scheduler’s job is to get everyone seen and keep the schedule running like clockwork. This is not the easiest job.

One patient always complained about the time “wasted” in my office. “I should charge you for my time,” she jested. I offered her the job of scheduler at $50,000 a year plus a healthy bonus if she could schedule my days so that no patients ever complained about having to wait. She never took me up on my offer. I understood her frustrations.

Sometimes a schedule gone awry is entirely the doctor’s fault. He may spend too much time on hospital rounds and show up late at the office. He might spend too much time on the telephone allowing calls to run into office hours. I answered doctors’ calls but felt it best to return other calls at the end of the day.

A doctor, hoping to impress a patient with intense interest, may take too long seeing him. That patient will be impressed, but that time spent lengthened the waiting time of others. Talking about things other than medicine will increase scheduled time as there’s no time for social chitchat. I’ve been guilty of it, but I tried to resist the temptation.

Then there’s this type of incident that absolutely destroyed my office schedule. My secretary told me that a patient was on the phone, believe it or not, canceling his appointment as he was about to commit suicide. Honestly, I kid you not. I was on the phone for three hours attempting to talk him out of it, all the while, writing notes to my secretary to call the police and have the call traced. Tracing a call evidently is not as easy as it seems on television. Finally, I was notified that the police were on their way and for me to keep him on the phone, and, in the end, they found him, and a death was averted.

At the end, I had 16 patients in my waiting room, some sitting on the floor in the hall in front of me, while I corresponded with this man. They all applauded the successful ending, but office hours ran into the night that day. There is an epilogue to this story. Three to four weeks later, this man called to thank me for saving his life. Sometimes, life can be beautiful in the midst of all its confusion.

If and when you do see the doctor, here are a few suggestions that may help make the best use of your appointment time.

1. Write down your complaint in as few words possible.

2. Keep yourself on track at the visit.

3. If you have several problems, describe the most severe one first, then the others.

4. Be ready for questions about the location of the pain, when it started, whether it followed an injury, whether you have had the same pain before, level of pain, is pain constant or intermittent, and so on.

5. Be ready to give a concise history without going off on a tangent.

6. Describe treatments another doctor has prescribed or those you have tried.

7. Carry your notes with you when you go!

8. Before your appointment, arrange to pick up your medical records, X-rays, and reports of any studies to bring with you. If the referring doctor offers to send the material, check ahead of time to be sure it was done.

9. If you’re fearful about seeing a doctor, the “white coat syndrome,” arrange to bring your spouse, another family member, or a friend along.

10. If you’re nervous, tell the doctor, and ask him to repeat the diagnosis and proposed treatment for you. If necessary, ask him to write it down. Don’t let the big medical words go by without asking what they mean or asking to have them explained.

11. If you don’t understand, say so. Don’t just nod “yes” in hopes of getting out as soon as possible.

12. Always review the proposed treatment with the doctor, to be sure you understand and can follow the instructions. If you think you might not be able to follow them, tell the doctor so and why.

13. If you sense that the doctor is not completely focused on your problem, offer to come back at a more convenient time. Nine times out of ten, this will jolt him and redirect his attention.

14. Above all, realize you’re not the only person being seen that day.

15. Respect the doctor’s and the other patients’ time.

Dr. Thomas Neviaser is a retired orthopaedic surgeon and the author of The Way I See It: A Head-to-Toe Guide to Common Orthopaedic Conditions. You may reach him at