What Your Doctor Wants You to Know About Those Painfully Short Appointment Times

doctor looking at their watch


The brevity of these appointments is just as disheartening for clinicians as it is for patients.

This article is part of an ongoing series providing insights and tips from a primary care doctor on how to get the most from your medical appointments, what your doctor might be experiencing on the other side of the exam table, and all that patients and doctors have in common.

Have you ever waited months for an appointment with your doctor, only to feel like the visit itself was rushed? Did your doctor seem stressed or distracted, and before you knew it, the visit was over? If so, you’re not alone. The current healthcare system is fraught with many problems, one of which is the 15-minute visit

The brevity of these appointments is often just as disheartening for clinicians as it is for patients. As a primary care doctor, I constantly wish that I had more time to really sit with my patients, listen to their stories, and go into all the nuances of their treatment plans together. I know that I’m not alone, either; physician burnout has been all over the news, and one of the many contributing factors is inadequate time with our patients. 

The frustrating reality of a 15-minute visit is that there isn’t much doctors can really do about it. The shift from longer appointment times toward 15-minute visits began in the early 1990s, when Medicare came up with a new formula to determine how physicians should be reimbursed for their time and expertise. As a result of this new formula, physicians needed to see more and more patients per hour to keep up. This model became the norm of how health care — especially primary care — is delivered in the U.S. We do our best to make our time with our patients count, but there’s only so much we can do in 15 minutes. 

So what can you do to take advantage of our short time together? Preparing a few key pieces of information beforehand will set your visit up for success and allow you to have the most productive conversation possible. Here are a few tips that I share with my friends and family to make the most of your limited face-to-face time with your doctor. 

Make a list

Think through your top concerns ahead of time. If you can, try to make a list of your most pressing symptoms and outline which ones you’d like to go over at the start of the visit. Saying something like, “I have a few concerns that are on my mind; I’ve prioritized the most important ones for today’s visit,” is a perfect way to help your doctor mentally prepare and make the best use of your 15 minutes together, leaving enough time for each concern. If you don’t manage to get through everything in one visit, you should feel empowered to ask your doctor to fit you in soon for a follow-up visit.  

Reflect on your goals

What do you hope your doctor will do for you during the visit? This can vary from person to person. Do you tend to be a minimalist when it comes to healthcare interventions and medications? Are you hoping for reassurance that you’re OK, or are you more interested in figuring out the cause of your symptoms? Do you want to walk out the door with a prescription, or a referral to see a specialist?

If you hope for a specific outcome from your visit, sharing this information with your doctor will lead to a more satisfying encounter. It gives your doctor the chance to offer exactly what you’re hoping for, if it’s medically appropriate. And if your doctor can’t meet your precise wish, they can explain their thought process and come up with an alternate plan. 

Share relevant workups

If you’ve already seen another healthcare provider for what’s been bothering you, a summary of your recent test results is incredibly valuable. Did you go to an urgent care center and have a normal chest X-ray two days ago, but now your cough is worse? Did the staff at the ER draw lots of blood tests and tell you everything looked fine? Or did you try something at home that really helped your symptoms? These are helpful pieces of information to share with your doctor. 

My patients often assume that I have access to all their other healthcare visits and test results, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case. (I wish it were!) Offering this information yourself ensures that important medical data don’t slip through the proverbial cracks. 

Follow up

The end of every visit should have a follow-up plan that makes sense to both the clinician and the patient. What kind of follow-up feels right to you? Would you like to see your doctor again in two weeks after you’ve gotten some tests done to discuss the results? Or would you rather go back only if you’re not feeling better?

I often ask my patients to consider what follow-up interval feels right to them. Many will say, “I want to see you every 3 months no matter what,” or, on the other hand, “I hope I don’t have to see you until our annual physical. I’ll call you if I need you.” All of these options can work equally well, depending on the circumstance. Ending a doctor’s appointment with a clear plan for the future helps ensure that your concerns will be heard and cared for. 

Dr. Neda Frayha is a primary care internist, editor, and host of the Primary Care Reviews and Perspectives podcast by Hippo Education, and public radio contributor on topics related to health and medicine. She has written for The Washington Post, reported on health care for WHYY, and been featured on podcasts such as The Pulse, The Broad Experience, and The Curbsiders. 

The information provided on this site isn’t intended as medical advice, and shouldn’t replace professional medical treatment. Consult your doctor with any serious health concerns.