With physicians beginning to offer appointment scheduling online, the days of calling a doctor’s office and haggling over dates and times fortunately appear to be numbered. The gains in convenience are clear, but the trend raises an important question: do you necessarily want the doctor who is available soonest?
When scheduling an appointment, the natural tendency is to look for physicians with the earliest openings. With little information to otherwise differentiate between the options, optimizing for availability is one of the few things that we, as patients, can actually control. This is true even of physicians, themselves. In a study of primary care providers, 55% of doctors reported that appointment timeliness was a major factor in how they decided which specialist to refer a patient to.
The problem with seeking out the first available doctor is that the best physicians are rarely the easiest to schedule. Some are booked months in advance; others are not even accepting new patients. Our own study of physician availability found that the soonest available doctor rated in the top 10% of their specialty less than 2% of the time.
In helping people find the top physicians, this is a challenge that we at Grand Rounds face every day. Our quality algorithm can identify the best available options, but this is not enough. In urgent situations, waiting a few days or weeks may not be reasonable. On the other hand, waiting an extra month to undergo a rare operation may be critically important when it allows you to be treated by the most experienced specialist.
Making the right decision can involve difficult tradeoffs, and it is essential to acknowledge the limits of the quality algorithm here. Its recommendations cannot account for how important it is for a father to be recovered from ACL surgery in time to coach his daughter’s soccer team. It cannot anticipate who will be constrained to options that are accessible via public transit or who can only make appointments on Thursday mornings when their son is free to drive them. Everyone’s situation is unique, and the small details can make a tremendous difference.
This is where our staff physicians and care coordinators are essential to the process. They hear the voice of the patient. They know what it is like to be in pain and discomfort, to be uncertain and afraid. Through them, we work to give people what they need most. The algorithm ensures that you receive excellent care; our medical team ensures that you receive the right care.