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What to Do When Your Doctor’s Booked

It’s Friday morning, and when you wake up, the scratchy throat you’ve had for the last few days has only gotten worse. You get in touch with your doctor, eager to be seen before the weekend, only to learn that the next available appointment is two weeks out. 

It’s an all-too-common scenario. Patients with acute health problems like a persistent earache or an angry rash can find their doctor’s schedule booked for weeks. One 2016 survey found that only 10 percent of patients needing care for an urgent issue got an appointment when they needed one.

As with other professions, doctors fill their calendars to earn a living. Some even double book to hedge against cancellations, leaving little flexibility in their schedules. But sometimes you need to be seen right away. Don’t feel defeated if your doctor doesn’t have a last-minute appointment available. There are strategies you can use to get your health concern addressed sooner rather than later. 

“If it’s a sick visit, and you really need to get in, I wouldn’t get too hung up on the word ‘appointment,’” says Dr. Steven Furr, a family physician in Jackson, Alabama. “Even if all of our appointments are booked, we’re usually willing to work people in.”

Approaches to getting seen quickly for your acute health issue include:

Understand how your doctor schedules appointments. While some doctors book up their days, in recent years others have adopted an alternative scheduling method called open-access or same day scheduling that leaves about half a doctor’s schedule open every day. When Dr. Andrew Carroll, a family physician, in Chandler, Arizona switched to an open-access model, he was able to better accommodate last-minute requests. Most days, he starts with eight to 10 patients on his schedule and ends up seeing 18 to 20. “We can assure our patients that if they call in for an acute visit, there will be an appointment for them that day,” he says. “It’s important to be nimble in this day and age. Forward thinking physicians are doing this,” and patients can petition their doctor to look into it, he says.

Make use of the patient portal. If you can’t reach your doctor’s assistant or a nurse, try sending a note through the patient portal. Make it clear that you’re dealing with an acute health issue and you need to be seen as soon as possible. Say you’re sick and that you’re hoping the doctor can work you in today, Furr says. That type of specific language can make a big difference. You can list symptoms and even attach a picture. Some doctor’s offices check messages twice a day, at lunch and near the end of the day. Others might check once. To see if the patient portal could help when you’re sick and need an immediate appointment, ask your doctor when they typically go through and respond to messages each day.

Get to know the support staff. Be friendly with the nurses or physician assistants at your doctor’s office. “The key is to have a relationship with nurses ahead of time,” Furr says. If nurses get to know you and see that, when you reach out to the doctor, it’s always with a genuine concern, they may be more likely to assess your issue quickly via the patient portal. You might find that it can be handled remotely, without an appointment.

Try another doctor in the practice — or an NP. If your doctor is booked and can’t squeeze you in, the next best option is to see another doctor or nurse practitioner in the practice. They have access to your medical records, so you won’t have to start from scratch with your medical history, like you would if you went to an urgent care facility. Every day, Furr’s practice keeps one provider’s schedule light — with only around one third of the normal load — to leave room for last-minute appointments. “If patients can be flexible about who they see, we’ll get you in,” he says.

Consider a new doctor. For some ailments, says Furr, going to urgent care or the emergency room is the best bet. Those include chest pain in older adults with risk factors, loss of consciousness, vision loss and extremely high fever. For less serious health concerns, finding a new physician might be the answer — especially if getting an appointment with your doctor is a persistent problem or you’re not satisfied with them for another reason.

If you do end up securing a last-minute appointment, with your existing doctor or someone new, it’s not the time to review a long list of health concerns, says Furr. “Talk about your one problem and be very focused on that,” he says. “The staff will remember that in the future when you need an immediate appointment.”

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.