Why Is My Doctor Always Late?

Do you hate arriving 15 minutes early for your doctor's appointment only to find the doctor running an hour behind? House Call Doctor tackles this complex issue. Plus - check out a day in the life of a typical primary care doctor.

Sanaz Majd, MD
9-minute read
Episode #178

One of my biggest pet peeves in life is tardiness. I hate it when other people are late. It’s as if they are not respecting my time.  But you know what? I hate being late myself even more.  In fact, I cringe at the thought. Conscientious, successful people are on time.


So you can imagine that nothing irks me more than being late myself. But I am late - 10 minutes, 30 minutes, sometimes even an hour. And what’s worse? It happens on a daily basis.  Yes, I’m late almost every single day as a primary care doctor. 

This makes me feel overwhelmed and frustrated. It's the one aspect of my profession I truly wish I could fix.

But I’ve had to accept this unacceptable situation as the reality of working in primary care in the United States. It’s a complex problem that is out of my control and it’s a hard pill to swallow. However, that doesn’t mean I can't try to offer a solution. And this podcast episode is my attempt to do just that. 

This week I’m going to give you a snapshot of what a common morning in the life of a typical primary care doctor looks like - warts and all. Next week I will propose a new process to help minimize this issue as much as possible..

A Day in the Life of Dr. Tardy

Dr. Tardy is a great doctor. She cares about her patients, she tries to do the right thing for them, tries to take the time to listen without making them feel rushed. She doesn't like to take any shortcuts when it comes to patient care. That means that she tends to run late. 

Here’s a typical schedule in the life of Dr. Tardy, a primary care physician who works in a large group outpatient setting. It consists of 11 patients, scheduled in 20-minute time slots: 

  • 8:30  Mr. Never-Goes-to-the-Doctor
  • 8:50  Ms. UTI
  • 9:10  Ms. New-Stroke
  • 9:30  Ms. High-Copay
  • 9:50  Little-Junior-1
  • 10:10  Little-Junior-2
  • 10:30  Ms. Diabetes
  • 10:50  Mr. Needs-a-Navigation-System
  • 11:10  Ms. Sadness
  • 11:30  Mr. Follow-Up-Blood Pressures
  • 11:50  Mr. Acid Reflux

First Patient: Mr. Never-Goes-to-the-Doctor 

The first patient on the schedule is brand new to the practice. Forgetting that he needs to arrive at least 15 minutes prior to his appointment to complete paperwork and processing, he arrives at 8:30am. He doesn’t come to the doctor’s office very often and he scheduled this appointment over 6 weeks ago – do we blame him for forgetting this small detail?

Thankfully, the swift-working front desk staff do their magic to rush his processing…but it’s now 8:40. 

The medical assistant calls his name and takes him to measure his vital signs, and places him in the exam room.  By now it’s 8:45. 

Most doctors are now using electronic medical records and a progress note for the patient visit cannot be opened until the patient is actually processed and roomed. Once that happens, Dr. Tardy comes in to see the patient. It’s now 8:50.

She's already running 20 minutes behind schedule and it’s only the first patient of the day. Not good.

Back to the Doctor’s Desk

Thankfully, the patient is pretty healthy, so the visit takes only 15 minutes to complete.

Dr. Tardy heads back to her desk to start the same process for the next patient. Her flow is interrupted, however, as one of the nurses seeks her out to show her an abnormal electrocardiogram (EKG) she performed in the nurse clinic. The doctor has never met this patient, who belongs to the patient panel of another doctor who is out on vacation. Dr. Tardy needs to search the patient in the electronic medical records, study the medical history, and compare the current EKG with her previous one in order to determine the next step of action. 

This is an urgent issue; she cannot simply ignore this EKG. The process takes her at least 5 minutes. She is now running 25 minutes behind.

Next Patient:  Ms. UTI

Thankfully, the next patient is also healthy. She has some urinary symptoms and it’s pretty straightforward. Dr. Tardy orders the appropriate tests and provides her the proper treatment. This one took only 10 minutes to treat and 5 minutes to document. Woo hoo!  We now can subtract 5 minutes and are only 20 minutes behind.

Next Patient:  Ms. Stroke

The next patient is a hospital follow-up. An 87-year-old woman who suffered a stroke since Dr. Tardy last saw her. She is now unable to speak clearly and requires a family member’s presence to help facilitate the visit.  The doctor also needs to request the records to be transferred over from the hospitalization in order to get the medical details.

Thankfully, the wonderful medical assistant did that prior to her visit…phew! 

How long will it take to peruse the packet of hospital notes from her 10-day stay? After reading the novel-length paperwork, here’s what Dr. Tardy determines will need to be accomplished during this visit:

  1. The patient requires referrals for multiple specialists: physical therapy, speech therapy, neurology. Each one of these referrals takes time to submit.

  2. The family is frustrated because they cannot care for her at home and multiple psychosocial aspects of a stroke need to be addressed. The patient is depressed and the family is understandably shaken up. They look to Dr. Tardy to ease the pain and provide support and guidance, not to mention help in coordinating her living placement. Dr. Tardy listens to her patients.

  3. The patient is also diabetic and her blood sugar levels are out of control. Dr. Tardy needs to address that urgently.  After all, diabetes is a contributing factor to the stroke in the first place.

All of this needs to happen in a 20-minute patient slot. Not possible. Dr. tardy tries really hard and this visit miraculously takes only 30 minutes to complete and another 5 minutes to document. Now the doctor is 35 minutes behind. 

Back at the Doctor’s Desk

Dr. Tardy gets interrupted again in between patients because of a critical lab value on one of her patients. The patient must go to the ER and Dr. Tardy needs to call her to explain to her exactly why it’s imperative that she be seen ASAP. The patient doesn’t want to go because of a high hospital copay. Dr. Tardy must convince her to go anyway. This takes another 5 minutes to achieve and Dr. Tardy is now 40 minutes behind.

Next Patient:  Ms. High-Copay

The next patient is a 45-year-old who complains that she needs all 4 of her medical issues addressed today because she has a $60 copay and it's a financial hardship for her to come for more frequent visits. She wants to discuss:

  1. her high blood pressure
  2. her low back pain
  3. her depression symptoms
  4. and she wants her pap smear done

Dr. Tardy explains that unfortunately time does not allow her to handle all these things in one visit. She suggests that they can complete the pap smear at a future visit since there are no copays for preventative screenings due to Obamacare

Ms. High-Copay is not thrilled to have to return, but reluctantly agrees. Dr. Tardy cannot help but feel slightly uncomfortable with the reaction she receives. After all, Dr.Tardy is human and she cares about her patients. This visit still takes Dr. Tardy 30 minutes to complete and by now she’s 50 minutes behind.

Next Two Patients: Little-Juniors-1 and 2

Mom brings in her two kids – they have been struck with the same bug and are coughing and sniffling every which way. Dr. Tardy does save some time, however, because she can address both kids’ conditions to one parent. 

Great! She saves 15 minutes here, placing her at 35 minutes late. How lucky.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.