Recently, my husband called our doctor's office hoping for an appointment. He had been battling flu-like symptoms for more than two weeks and felt utterly miserable. He called within minutes after the office opened but was told they were so busy that he should try a walk-in clinic instead.
Angry wife to the rescue. I called back and he got in a couple hours later.
Yes, we are in the middle of flu season and doctors' offices are teeming with people who are sick, germy and in need of medical help. And those are the lucky ones who got an appointment.
But there are, as I found out, things you can do to make sure the doctor will see you ... now.
According to a 2013 survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians, 80 percent of family doctors offer same-day scheduling and about half (51 percent) provide extended office (early morning or late evening) hours.
But if you feel bad when you wake up, don't wait until noon to call. If they have any open slots, they're likely to fill them up on a first-come, first-served basis.
Be specific about symptoms
When you call, don't just say, "I'm sick."
"There are certain key facts to mention that help the telephone staff triage who gets an appointment today, who gets sent to the emergency room or urgent care, and who can wait until another day," says Dr. Christine Matson, M.D., professor and chair of the department of family and community medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. "The most important is the length of time you've been sick."
Tell the person who answers the phone how long you've had symptoms, as well as detailed information about what those symptoms are. Include your exact temperature if you have a fever, where it hurts when you cough, and any other complaints. Let them know if your symptoms have been getting worse.
In fact, that's important information no matter what kind of doctor you're trying to see, says Pam Sanford, office administrator at Georgia Ophthalmology Associates in metro Atlanta. "The meat of the issues is always, 'What is your complaint and how long is it going on?' That's what's key."
Mention any pre-existing conditions
If you have upper respiratory symptoms and it's been less than a week, you might not be bumped to the top of the must-be-seen list. Few doctors give antibiotics when you've had symptoms for just a few days. But if you also have diabetes, heart disease, asthma or some other pre-existing medical condition, let the office know. It may mean earlier and more aggressive treatment, says Matson, which means they need to see you.
When you go to a retail clinic or urgent care center, they don't have your charts so they have to rely on you for medical history and a list of medications — easier said than done when you're feeling cruddy.
Ask to talk to a nurse
The receptionist likely has guidelines for judging if someone needs to be seen, but she doesn't have medical training. If you can't get an appointment, ask to chat with the nurse, suggests Dr. Robert Wergin, M.D., a family physician based in Milford, Nebraska, and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
"The nurse might say, 'Maybe you don’t need to be seen today, why don’t you try these things,' or she might agree, that's a serious problem and get you in."
Share your history
If you've been a long-time patient, be sure to drop that nugget of information. According to a national survey by healthcare company Merritt Hawkins, if you're a new patient it takes an average of 19 1/2 days to get in to see a family doctor. So remind them if you've been around for a while. In our case, my husband and I had been going to the same practice for nearly 18 years, so I was quick to mention our loyalty.
Don't be picky
You might love your doctor, but if the nurse practitioner, physician's assistant, or brand-new doctor has an opening, take it.
"In my practice, those people work closely with me. We share the same medical records. They will report to me if there's a change in your status," says Matson.
It's common sense, but if you yell or get angry, the receptionist isn't going to work all that hard to squeeze you in. You get more flies with honey than with vinegar, after all.
"Our training for our front desk people is to remember that the patient is the one who is sick and therefore we need to be accommodating and remember that they feel bad or they're trying to advocate for somebody else they love. We see people when they're not at their best," Matson says. "I think the obligation is to train our front desk staff to be kind, but it's reciprocal. It's common sense."
Ask to speak to someone else
In my husband's situation, I asked for the office manager. I explained everything — his long-lasting symptoms, that he had already visited a drug store clinic, his pre-existing conditions, and the fact that we had been with the practice so long. I was also very nice. She squeezed him in and now he feels much better.
If you get an appointment, be prepared to wait. They likely made room for you on a very crowded schedule, so bring your headphones or some reading material.
"They put you in a room and put a bright orange flag on the door and I know it's one of those straightforward acute visits so I just duck in there," says Wergin. "Occasionally I'm quite busy and they may have to wait a little bit but they're told that up front. But eventually, I get to see them."
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