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My doctor always runs late. When I finally see him, I only get a few minutes and by the time I return to work, half my day is shot. If I'm late, I lose my appointment. Why can't doctors run on time?


Nothing makes you feel as undervalued as when a doctor leaves you waiting for a long time. Having to take a half day off, in your case, is a bit rich, given that you are penalized when tardy. No one likes being stuck in waiting rooms: They are full of sick people fighting for too few magazines with all the good pages ripped out.

Patients aren't the only ones concerned. A family doctor from Vancouver wrote how badly some patients reacted when he was behind: They screamed, threatened to sue and abused staff, in some cases making workers cry, only to be "sweet as pie" in the consultation room.

With late appointments, patients should know there is a time to complain, a time to walk and a time to suck it up. You are clearly justified in complaining when the physician is running very late, say an hour, which happens repeatedly with no apologies.

"I've had patients tell me, "You're an hour late. My time is important,' " says Frank Martino, chief of family medicine at William Osler Health Centre in Brampton, Ont. "I apologize and confirm their concerns and validate them."

There are some legitimate reasons for delays, such as a medical crisis or patients who take longer than expected. But others are simply poor at scheduling, or try to cram too many patients into a day. If your doctor is often tardy but otherwise fine, and you have a pressing appointment, you may want to call ahead and politely ask office staff whether the doctor is running behind.

You can make the best of an annoying situation by using your limited time with the physician wisely. Before you even book that appointment, explicitly state why you need to see the doctor. This helps office staff set aside the appropriate amount of time.

Know the questions you want to ask, said Dr. Martino, and remained focused on top health issues. Make a mental or written list but recognize you may not be able to get through all of your ailments: Most appointments are five to 15 minutes long. The physician can then decide whether a double appointment needs to be booked next time. These steps help doctors stay on track.

This task of itemizing health concerns is important, points out Dr. Martino, who said he's literally had his hand on the door handle, about to say goodbye, when a patient mentions nagging chest pains.

"You've got to be careful not to minimize their concerns," he said, noting in that particular case the patient was found to have angina. It's these situations that make the doctor late for the next patient.

You don't always have to tolerate lateness, especially if using a private laboratory or diagnostic clinic. I recently walked out after waiting 45 minutes past my pre-booked appointment time for a test, with no guarantee it was going to happen any time soon. I told office staff I had to go to work and I ended up rebooking at another lab that saw me on time.

There are also times when it's best to put up with the inconvenience. If you are mid-treatment with a life-threatening illness, don't bolt unless the care is poor and you have something better lined up: Locating another specialist at such a crucial time may compromise your outcome.

The Patient Navigator is a column that answers reader questions on how to navigate our health-care system. Send your questions to

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