I recently read a Huff Post article entitled “The Real Reason Your Wait at the Doctor’s Office is So Long.”  Veterinary Medicine and Human medicine vary in a lot of very meaningful ways, but we are also often the same.  And in this we share a common weakness—we sometimes run behind schedule.  In fact, I’d wager to say we frequently run behind schedule.  So, when I saw this article, I expected to read a well-reasoned explanation of why this is the case by someone in the know.  Instead, the article read more like one woman’s angry Yelp review.  Many of the comments in the article espoused similar experiences with complaints that doctors don’t value their time, overbook to cram as many appointments in as possible just to make a few bucks, and are generally greedy, no-good, shysters with big egos.  As you can imagine, myself and many other health professionals took offense to this so I am here to tell you the REAL “real reason” your wait at the vet’s office (or physician, dentist, chiropractor, etc) is so long—we care!

We care about you and your pet and your health, and yes, even your time.  We care, and we are people pleasers who try to make everyone happy.  We do our best to schedule responsibly (although sometimes there are managers and administrators who have more of a say in this than we do) but as Robert Burns said, “even the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.”  Nowhere is this more true than in medicine. Things are always going awry.  Sometimes it’s a true medical emergency—the dog that ran into the street and got hit by a car, the cat that can’t breathe because it’s having an asthma attack, the person who goes to their doctor for heartburn but is really having a heart attack. In these cases we have to stop everything we’re doing to care for this emergency and that takes a lot of time.

Sometimes the problem is our own inability to say no.  We save that appointment slot for an emergency and then someone calls up because their dog has a painful ear infection.  Sure, it’s not really an “emergency” but we can’t stand the thought of that dog suffering in pain until tomorrow, so we fill the slot.  Then the next thing you know, someone calls up because their cat has vomited 6 times in the last hour and really needs to be seen.  Sure, we could say we’re booked and send them to the emergency clinic, but then the client will wind up spending twice as much and they have two kids in college and can’t really afford it.  So we fit them in, even though there are no open spots and taking x-rays is going to put us even more behind.

We also get behind when simple appointments turn out to be not so simple.  A client schedules a wellness appointment for vaccines and then “mentions” their cat is urinating out of the litter box, and can you check this lump and his breath really smells, and oh yeah, don’t forget to cut his nails.  Or the patient I saw the other day for what the client thought was an eye infection but really turned out to be lymphoma.  I’m not going to rush an appointment like that just because I’m afraid of getting behind.  Yes, I feel bad that I’m making the next client wait, but I know that if something terrible ever happens to their pet, they would want me to give them as much time and attention as they need, even if there are ten people in the waiting room who are just going to have to wait a little bit longer.

And sometimes it’s not terrible news I’m delivering, but just someone who has a lot of questions. Sometimes I have to have a lengthy conversation on weight management or dental health, or the importance of heartworm prevention, that runs long.  I could easily skip over these issues especially when I’m running behind.  It’s not a problem yet after all.  But instead I take the time to make sure my clients are fully educated about their pet’s health so that down the line I can hopefully avoid discussing diabetes management or the heartworm treatment protocol.

All of these things aren’t a once in a while occurrence.  They happen on an almost daily basis in medicine.

The truth is, maybe I could be on schedule more often.   I really do value your time, but I value your pet’s health more and if being better at time management means I’m gong to be worse as a doctor, then I’m not interested.


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37 thoughts on “The Real Reason Your Wait at the Vet’s Office is so Long

  1. Yes to all of these reasons and more. Don’t forget the client who is “running late” and shows up 10-30 minutes late (even though your appointment slots are 15-20 minutes each. Or the person who brings in 2 pets when only one of them is scheduled but says “Can you take a quick peek at Fluffy too?”. Not to mention the animals that are petrified or aggressive so you take the extra time to talk quietly and try to soothe them so you can even examine them to get started!!!

  2. It’s also getting to be more and more common that someone who has a 10:00 appointment shows up at 10:20. There are clients who come early, no doubt in an attempt to shorten their wait time, but it actually creates more disorder. It’s not unusual for us to have clients with 10:00, 10:20, and 10:40 appointments all show up at 10:15.

    Believe me, we do not over-schedule in an attempt to make a few extra bucks. It really is NOT worth the stress it causes our clients, our staff, and us.

    1. Client’s coming in early or late definitely plays a roll. I left that out of this article because I didn’t want to be accusatory or defensive. There are so many other reasons that are more important and focusing on those reminds people that we care.

      1. I agree that you don’t want to be accusatory or defensive, but it IS a genuine factor, and I don’t think it should be ignored. Having said that, I do make a policy of letting people know if their wait is going to be more than 10 minutes. If so, I give them the option of bringing the pet back into the treatment area for the technicians to do as much of their job as possible before putting the client in the room. If the techs do their TPR, blood draw, ear cytology, fecal sample, etc. before the client is even in the room, it can save a lot of the client’s time. This has worked out well for us, and it’s pretty unusual for a client to have to wait more than 15 minutes for an appointment, even if the doctor is a bit behind.

      2. In defense of those who show up early, its a habit ingrained into some of us for appointments. There are many Doctors and vets who insist on arriving 10-15 minutes early, there are also those who will mark you as a no show and charge you a cancellation fee the moment the clock hits 10:01 as you walk in the door for your 10am appointment. Some vets also have you fill out paperwork before you’ll be seen.

        I move around, a lot, I’ve had to deal with so many Medical, Dental and Veterinary clinics over the years I can’t remember a tenth of the clinic names, let alone the Dr/Dentist/Vet. Most get exasperated with those who show exactly on time, let alone late and many have penalties for late shows, even within mere moments of the appointment time.

        I can see the frustration for those who are truly late for appointments, but the few that get frustrated with early shows will have to take those with grace as many, many Vets, Dentists & Doctors prefer it and that is what most drill into the clients at the time of scheduling: Show up 10-15 minutes early…

  3. One thing I’ve found goes a LONG way with clients is a simple acknowledgement at the start of the appointment that you’ve kept them waiting. It can be very brief, but I find clients really appreciate it ‘I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting, we’ve had a few unexpected hiccups in the schedule today’. (That’s one thing I don’t think I’ve *ever* heard in the MDs office, even when they are more than an hour late for the first appointment of the day)

    1. Absolutely! It’s important to keep the client’s updated on what’s going on and how long they might have to wait.

    2. In defense of the MD’s office, their work day starts long before their clinic hours, with hospital rounds. Many docs are seeing hospital patients at 6, 6:30AM and hospital patients have complications and emergencies around the clock. Add in the same problems mentioned above and it doesn’t require a genius IQ to see why they get behind, even for the first appointment of the day. But, I do agree, an apology for any wait time is always appropriate, even if it’s not their fault. (A RN with both hospital and clinic background, married to a mixed practice vet)

  4. How about using technology, like “checking in” online and getting a buzz when your turn is coming up? This would save a lot of anxiety on behalf of, say, older cats sitting for hours in a room full of barking dogs.

    1. That sounds like a great idea. I don’t know of any veterinary software that currently offers this, but as technology is improving, we will definitely have more options available to help us communicate more effectively with out clients.

  5. These are good reasons. HOWEVER, once you get behind, you should be calling the rest of the day’s or morning’s or afternoon’s patients and telling them to come in XX minutes later than scheduled. It’s horrible to sit in the waiting room with a dog who is scared and anxious and confused, when I could have just come 15 or 20 or however-many minutes later. That lack of courtesy is what galls me. If I were to show up that late and the vet was actually running on schedule, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t get seen quickly, if at all.

    1. You’re absolutely right. Communication is so important and we do our best to try to keep people informed of wait times, and if there’s enough advanced notice giving our clients a heads up before they get there definitely helps.

    2. Then after 45 minutes is spent making needless calls by an already behind office staff, we have the client who no-shows for a double to triple appointment, wasting everybody’s time and money.

    3. We have one client who will call us prior to her appointment to see how our schedule is going that day and if she should come in later as she doesn’t like to wait either. That works out well for all of us.

    4. While I do see your point, making all those calls would end up being one more task between us, and actually getting to the business of caring for your animal. Also, sometimes there is no notice when things get behind. I’ve seen the vets I work for literally turn to walk toward a room with a waiting client, and have an emergency fly through the door that delays her a by a half hour or more. We do our best to communicate with clients when we are running behind, but unfortunately, your suggestion with the phone calls isn’t the answer.

      1. I feel like this entire issue is more of a reflection on the supporting staff than the actual Dr. Granted the emergencies happen. We all know that. Heck the clients know that too, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a client upset because a dr was treating a HBC or actual emergency. It’s the other backup that get frustrating to them.

        As a past receptionist, tech and then practice administrator I feel like a great deal of this lag time can be eliminated by other roles. Have the techs stage the rooms properly so that the dr literally can pop out of one and into the next to make up time. Also a good receptionist/manager can see how the day is playing out ahead of time an make the needed calls to adjust the schedule. Most know the clientele and who is flexible and will happily come on 20 mins late or tomorrow.
        It just shows why the team as a whole is so important.

      1. In my little Shelley’s case; we took her to be seen because she had started losing weight…we found out she had end stage cancer. I took my little cat to the vet and instead of being treated, she was going to make the long journey. The vet was not prepared for my needs at the time, which were to hold my little cat while she left. This was apparently the first time someone had to hold their loved one as they left, so they were confounded as to how to do it, and offered to take her into the other room so I wouldn’t have to see it, They encouraged me to let them take her, and I told them to bring the meds to us and let me hold her as she made the trip. It was a bad scene, they messed up her meds and scared her half of the way to death before the meds kicked in. I have found a vet in my area with a heart as big as alllll outdoors. She will come to your home to let your pet and you be more comfortable in your familiar surroundings. And she puts the pet to sleep as for surgery, then administers the euth drug. No fright or sudden start. God bless that woman!

  6. I’m a veterinary technician now.but have managed practices in the past. It is always so.important to acknowledge a client when they come in the hospital. If the doctor is running behind, let them know and give them an eta on appointment time. Offer them some coffee. Or suggest that little bakery down the street. Some people will appreciate those extra minutes doing something else while some.choose to wait. As a tech again now, in a practice with two doctors and only two rooms (getting ready to move to our new facility),if my doctor is running behind, I do not hesitate to go out to the lobby and sit down with the client on the bench and start a conversation about them and their pet, what’s going on and why we are behind, take a history, and ensure that they know we would give them the same extra time if ever it was needed. Make them feel welcomed and valued. Or they will go elsewhere. I absolutely agree with all of these points though!!

    1. Yes, I am always trying to get our staff to do this, although sometimes they get overwhelmed too. Communication is one of the most important things we can do for our clients.

    2. In addition to this, I noticed that in the article that it appears that the veterinarian is behind and this can be due to answering many questions such as weight wellness, etc. Veterinarians should utilize their technicians and support staff and delegate these responsibilities as much as possible to them. As a technician, I delegate heartworm conversations to assistants quite often since they are giving background information on life cycle and presenting choices in medication. A good assistant can do this. It is not required for the vet to spend their time relaying this info. Delegate to the appropriate level and we will all be happier and less behind.

  7. Very good article. I work in a “human” doctor’s office and you’re correct, many similarities! The vast majority of time we are behind comes right down to “Because we care”. Can you imagine if at the end of your allotted 15 minutes of time, the doctor just stopped and said “Sorry, times up!” and ended the appointment?

  8. I’ve been in the vet service field for about 28 years, working in all positions except for as a doctor. All of the above article relays very valid points as with the individual responses. I can’t remember a day where everything ran smoothly and on schedule. Most of the time it was clientele either running behind or bringing the extra pet, and the infamous “oh, by the way my pet has been……..” AND sometimes it is the doctors fault by getting involved in personal interest conversations and loses track of time. Hey, it happens. It is very frustrating for the doctors and employees when appointments are behind. The front desk staff has to have thick skin and not because they aren’t compassionate but because the clients waiting for their turn get mad at them when it’s no fault of their own. Emergencies happen way too often but every pet will get the care they need. So, don’t blame the vet…or the staff (entirely), things happen.

  9. We always try to arrive a few minutes early. It’s not trying to be seen sooner, but to get any paperwork completed. We have a cat that goes to the cardiologist, so they need updates every visit.
    It’s been my experience that waiting is just how it’s going to be. I try to schedule appointments when I’m not in a hurry or have other engagements.
    What I do find annoying is waiting for over an hour after my appointment time, waiting yet again while my pet is seen (usually a scan/X-ray or blood work), finally being called into the room to only see the vet for 3 minutes.

  10. After recently having experience a severe medical emergency with my dog and thus being the person who causes all other appointments for the day to be delayed, I truly have a new found tolerance and appreciation for having to wait to see my vet… Had my vet not accepted our last minute emergency call (1 hour before closing!), my pet would not still be here with me today. I will gladly wait an extra 20 minutes for our appointment if it means that someone else pet is getting the extra care that they need. Thank you vets everywhere for your dedication to our beloved fur babies.

  11. My vet is wonderful. He takes the time to talk to you, answer questions and explain exactly what my options are. I don’t mind waiting.

  12. We looked for our vets for aa few months after moving here,and we love them! If we have lost a puppy during a c-section,our vets have cried with us. And have welcomed the new puppies back for shots when the time came for that. I appreciate that they have been able to offer community help to no kill shelters and help as many people as possible with their pets as possible. I give them a huge thumbs up for all they do because they do everything on their power to heal the clients in their practice but also their humans too!

  13. This is a very good article that is important whenever you deal with the public, but I think more so when dealing with health of an animal or human. As a practicing veterinarian for over 30 year (EEK!!) this is always an issue. But it seems that people take more offense in our office when compared with human doctors. I have waited in doctor’s offices sometimes for over 2 hours, never being told the reason for waiting or getting an apology. Then, if a patient is late, maybe 5 minutes,patients are told to reschedule!! That would never do for us!!

    So, we get behind for many reasons: the late client (sometimes over 30min. late!!), the client that brings more than one pet when originally it was made for one pet, the tech appointment that suddenly needs a doctor, or the seemingly simple appointment that turns into something more complex. These things happen and usually can be handled, but I don’t think many people realize the other reasons we get behind–counseling a client about the seriousness of an illness, discussing end of life decisions, or dealing with a fractious patient, or for that matter, a difficult client.

    Last week, I had to go into a tech appointment for an older dog to help out. It turned into a counseling session to talk about whether the dog would survive much longer. You see the owners were having a very difficult time saying goodbye to their beloved pet because they had just lost their son. These are things that cannot be rushed and should not be rushed. Most people understand when I explain they had to wait because of something like this. Because they know I would take the same time with them.

    So, I do try to be on time, but sometimes can’t. Its called building relationships with clients and patients.

  14. Dr. Smith, This is an excellent article, and our Veterinary Practice Manager believes it would perfectly address many of the questions we are confronted with from clients. I would like to request your permission to reprint a portion of this article – with proper acknowledgement and referral – in our organization’s newsletter. We are a nonprofit veterinary hospital and animal shelter. All proceeds from our services directly support the care of our shelter animals, and adoptions and humane education programs. I would be happy to provide any additional information that may be needed. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

    1. Gwen, Thanks for wonderful feedback. You are absolutely welcome to share this post or any of my other work so long as you credit me. Thank you for the wonderful work you do!

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