It’s no secret that if you’re visiting a doctor or health care professional, waiting room times in Canada are ridiculous as a general rule. I’ve written about this before; unless you happen to be going to a private clinic and the staff are really on top of their game, you can usually expect to be waiting for well over an hour beyond your scheduled appointment before getting in to see your doctor. Some studies have shown that the average wait time in Canada can reach three to four hours.
And why is that? Common sense would dictate that if you require X amount of time to see each patient, then you’ll schedule them accordingly, right? Maybe not. I’ve been dealing with waiting rooms in various forms for almost forty years, given that I have Diabetes. And some waits can be somewhat extreme and even dangerous, depending on why you’re there.
One good example I can give is an occasion where my son fell down some stairs onto a landing in our home. He struck his head and had a nasty cut right above his eye. As parents, you can imagine our panic as we bundled him up and rushed him to our local hospital. Once we were at the ER, they asked us two questions: was he alert and had he lost consciousness? The answers were yes and no, and we were ushered to the waiting room where we waited for over three hours. I was flabbergasted! Yes, I just used the word flabbergasted!
By the end of that three hours, I had checked on our expected wait time a number of times, complained and was told that nothing could be done to expedite the wait and to take a seat. At the tail end of it, my very impatient and destructive son was beginning to get his second wind and wanted nothing to do with being at the hospital waiting room. We ended up leaving without treatment. Although some would judge that we CHOSE to leave without treatment, my son’s state f being at the moment, coupled with the fact we were well into the night and he needed to be put to bed, became important deciding factors.
This is a typical example and seems to be the norm these days. Yesterday I attended a medical appointment where I showed up forty minutes early and checked in. I totally expected to sit and wait quietly for the remaining time and beyond. Then I was taken by surprise by getting called in and being seen and out the door by the time my scheduled appointment rolled around!
I got curious, so I decided to ask a few folks I know in the medical field. It stands to reason they’d prefer I not post their names, but here’s a bit of what they had to say.
I spoke to a member in the nursing field, a medical resident and a family physician, who were able to explain some of the ins and outs of the emergency room, triage and how people are seen. One of the main aspects that was explained is that when someone comes into the emergency room, they are “triaged”. This means that they are assessed based on the immediate verbal information they provide, and are placed in order of importance.
So if you come in with a runny nose and a headache that prevents you from sleeping, you can expect to wait over the mother who just went into labour or the man who passed out from chest pains or someone who happens to be spurting blood from anywhere on their body! Further, the average emergency room in Canada only has one ER doctor on duty, so he/she is swamped! We often forget that these people need to eat, sleep and use the restroom just as we do. Although pretty trivial on their own, those little activities add up in terms of wait times.
Last but not least, the medical industry is the slowest at catching up with current technologies. Pagers and fax machines? These haven’t been a standard technology in the average residential home for over a decade, but doctors still rock the ol’ pager! And most clinics and hospitals still make frequent use of fax machines. Sometimes, the incorrect on call doctor may be paged during emergencies, and this adds up to delays.
When it comes to clinics and office settings, wait times can be attributed to the fact that although specific time slots are allotted for each patient, some patients will often CAUSE delays by bringing up several issues not originally meant for the appointment they scheduled. For example, if you book an appointment at your doctor’s clinic for a prescription renewal and you end up inquiring about a weird rash on your inner thigh “since you’re here anyway”, you’ll end up taking way more of your doctor’s time than you were scheduled for. This will cause the subsequent appointments to get bumped further down. You’ll actually see many clinics post a notice in their examination rooms that read, “One issue only”, indicating that you are only there to discuss one problem and a subsequent appointment is required if there is something else.
You’d be inclined to think that an added five minutes shouldn’t cause an issue, but imagine if all the first appointments in the morning included that added five to ten minutes. By the time your afternoon appointment rolled around, you could be looking at a minimum of a couple of hours added to the day’s roster, simply because of all the added little details patients brought up early on.
Obviously, the patient isn’t uniquely at fault. In private clinics, overbooking frequently happens as some physicians are often paid by the visit. So the more patients that are cycled through within a day, the more income the clinic generates.
Clinic physicians are also subject to several outside interferences, such as being called to surgery, a patient at the hospital going into labour or attending meetings and appointments of their own. Plus, we need to consider the rarely recognized reality that doctors tend to get sick too! And when they do, we don’t need them breathing their pox into our throats as they make us say “ahh”…
An article posted by the Ottawa Citizen back in 2017 explains that Canada has some of the worst wait times out of 11 countries that were surveyed (https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/barua-why-are-canadas-health-care-wait-times-the-worst). So what can we do to help alleviate some of these wait times?
Some of the things that we, as patients can do are pretty simple:
- Schedule your appointments well in advance. You should have intimate knowledge of your medication use, so if you know your prescription will run out in the next three weeks, schedule an appointment for your renewal right away;
- Avoid going to the hospital for non-life threatening illnesses. Colds and sniffles affect the best of us, but tying up the ER for something you could attend a walk-in clinic for will usually result in a longer wait for you and longer waits for the folks after you;
- Recognize that wait times are a continued problem, and it’s only gotten worse in recent years. Until Canada fixes or alleviates this specific problem, make sure you schedule your appointment around a healthy period of free time! If you schedule a doctor’s appointment with another important engagement happening an hour after, you may be in for some disappointment.
At the end of the day, I’ll gladly accept waiting longer for the free health care our country provides. Remember that if it is something critical and life-threatening, don’t try to attend the hospital or clinic on your own; make use of 911 and have yourself transported to the emergency room. Many people avoid this option because of the cost, but it’s a better alternative than serious debilitation or death. ☯