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Dear Mona, How Often Do People Arrive Late To Appointments?

Dear Mona,

I am a physician, and like many, the bane of our existence is patients arriving late for our appointments. I would estimate this happens for about one-third of patients, but I would love some hard data.

Dr. Gary Chimes, 41, Washington

Dear Gary,

Sorry, doc, but the numbers suggest that you either have bad patients or a bad ability to recall their habits. Even if you consider a patient arriving just one minute past her appointment time as “late,” your estimate of one-third seems way off — the data suggests it’s closer to one-thirteenth of patients who are late.

MONAI don’t know about late patients being the “bane” of anybody’s existence, but they were sufficiently irritating that in 2013 doctors at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine produced a study that attempted to improve patient punctuality. The study tracked the appointment and arrival times of 1,500 adult patient visits in an outpatient clinic in Maryland and found that 7.7 percent, or one-thirteenth, of those patients arrived at least one minute late.

Almost no one was right on time — a huge 90.7 percent of patients arrived before their appointments. And they weren’t just getting to the clinic with seconds to spare; on average, early arrivers got there 24.1 minutes beforehand. That’s a greater miss than the average latecomer, who got there 20.5 minutes after the designated time.

Now, I know this wasn’t your question Gary, but in the interest of addressing FiveThirtyEight readers who aren’t MDs, I looked at how physicians’ punctuality compares to that of their patients. You guys don’t come off so great.

Another paper published in The American Journal of Managed Care in May (authored by some very masochistic doctors) used survey data from 9,945 patients in 44 outpatient clinics to study wait times. On average, patients said they spent a total of 38 minutes waiting — 23 of them in the aptly titled waiting room and another 15 minutes in the exam room. Unsurprisingly, the longer those patients waited, the lower their reported satisfaction levels.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what percentage of doctors in the study contributed to those averages. Somewhat strangely, the researchers categorized the wait times in groups, the smallest of which was 0 to 5 minutes. That effectively prevents us from isolating the on-timers from their late colleagues. But prompt doctors will have helped to lower those average wait times — as did the researchers’ decision to exclude one outlier from the analysis. One individual claimed to have spent 1,415 minutes in the waiting room during one visit (that’s 23.6 hours).

Doctors aren’t alone in their tardiness, though. Some 37 percent of people are late to meetings, at least according to a 2013 study in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology that surveyed 665 participants.

But what does “late” mean, anyway? The same study showed that there can be wide disagreement. Participants were given eight different scenarios, each containing three factors — promptness to arrive, whether the meeting was underway, and whether they were the last person to arrive — then asked whether they would define themselves as late in each scenario. Consider the following for yourself:

When you arrived at the scheduled start time for the meeting, the group had already started working on the agenda items. You were the last person to arrive.

Forty-three percent said they’d call themselves “late.” By contrast, 93 percent of participants agreed that the following …

You arrived at a meeting 5 minutes after the scheduled start time. When you showed up, the group had already started working on the agenda items. One or more of your other group members had not arrived.

… was definitely a late arrival.

With medical meetings, though, things are a little more clear cut. I’d be very worried if when I arrived at my appointment the doctor had already started working on my agenda items, or had invited others to attend.

You wouldn’t do that, though, would you, Gary? I didn’t think so — and I’ll also give you the benefit of the doubt about your estimate that one-third of all your patients are late. Sounds like you’re an unusually on-time doctor with unusually late patients.

Hope the numbers help,


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Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.