mature African American woman talking to doctor

How to Get In To See the Doctor - Fast

It starts out with a tickle in the back of your throat and a nagging headache.  A few days later, you have a fever, a bad cough, and muscle aches.  Your niece is getting married next week, and you don’t want to miss the wedding.

What do you do?

You pick up the phone and call your primary care doctor.  The office scheduler is sympathetic but tells you the soonest open appointment is in three weeks.

It turns out snagging a same-day appointment with your doctor is a bit like winning the lottery.  The odds are not in your favor, especially during cold and flu season.

Even so, there are some tactics that may allow you to see your doctor sooner rather than later.

First, treat everyone kindly.  Yes, you are sick and probably feel terrible.  However, that is never an excuse to be rude or demanding to the office staff.

Ask if your doctor sees patients at a second office and if you could be seen at that location.  If this isn’t an option, then inquire if another doctor or professional in the practice has an opening.

If the answer to both questions is no, don’t give up.

Tell the scheduler you want to be added to the cancellation list.  Then, be proactive by calling again – midmorning is usually the best time – to check on cancellations.  The scheduler will have been busy fielding phone calls and may not have had time to fill all the cancellation openings.  If you follow up, you may snag an appointment.

Another option is to escalate your request to higher-level.  Ask to speak to your doctor’s nurse or the office manager.  This option should be available to patients, if it is not, find out why during your next appointment.

Still not able to book an appointment?

Try calling the nurse hotline, a service available in large healthcare groups.  By phone, the nurse will assess your condition, and if you make a strong case, he or she may intervene on your behalf.

When talking with any of these professionals, be prepared to answer basic questions about your condition.

How long have you been sick?  What are your current symptoms?  Has your condition worsened?  Do you have fever, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pains?  Can you rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst?

Be brief and use adjectives when describing symptoms, such as “I’m experiencing a sharp pain…”  “I’m unable to sleep due to my nagging cough…”  “It’s a pulsating pain…”

Keep in mind, if you sound like your condition isn’t that serious, you won’t be seen that day or perhaps any day soon.  On the other hand, if you come across as hysterical or violently ill, then you will be advised to go to urgent care or even the emergency room.

Should you do manage to get a same-day appointment, heed this advice:

  1. Be completely flexible on the appointment time
  2. Arrive on time, but be prepared to wait
  3. Be appreciative by thanking the staff and the doctor

In other words, be the model patient.

If all your efforts prove unsuccessful, and you are unable to book an appointment, then opt for urgent care or a walk-in clinic.  Save an expensive trip to the emergency room for an actual emergency.

You may feel frustrated with your experience, but remember, this is not personal on the part of office staff or your physician.  Rather, it is simply a fact that primary care docs are stretched to their limits on a daily basis.

It boils down to supply and demand. There are more patients and fewer primary care doctors.

According to the Association of American Medical Schools, demand for primary care doctors will dramatically increase over the next decade, resulting in a shortfall of between 12,500 and 31,100 primary care physicians.

This physician shortage is the principle reason for the wait times, according to a study published in 2014 by Merritt Hawkins, a healthcare consulting firm.

“There’s a rising demand for doctors, driven by population growth and a growing aging population… [but] at the same time, the number of physicians we train has remained static over the last 25 years,” said Phillip Miller, vice president, communications, Merritt Hawkins.

This scarcity of primary care physicians isn’t going to be solved quickly.  Instead, patients need to rethink how they tap into their medical care.

It’s not surprising then that some patients are opting out of the traditional methods of booking a doctor appointment.   One alternative is Zocdoc, a website and app, which allows patients to research physicians, search and book appointments online, schedule reminders, and fill out all forms before arriving at the office.  All these tasks and more can be completed without ever making a phone call.

About 5 million patients in 2,000 U.S. cities currently use the free Zocdoc platform monthly.

Whether or not patients choose technology or by making the traditional phone call to their doctor’s office, the best time to plan for a same-day appointment is before you need one.

Plan Ahead – During your annual check-up, tell your doctor you are concerned about being able to book an appointment when you need one.  Request his or her feedback and direction.

Improved Communications – Ask your primary care doctor if you can communicate directly by way of email and how long he/she generally takes to get back to you.

Choose Your Primary Doctor Wisely – Call the office and inquire about the number of patients who are in the doctor’s panel – in other words, how many patients are assigned to this physician.  You may be surprised to learn you are just one of 2,500 or more patients.

Think Outside the Physician Box – If you believe your doctor may be too overloaded, consider switching.  A physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, or an osteopath may have a lighter patient load and therefore can provide you with faster access.