Punished for Punctuality?

Being punctual often means being kept waiting

The doctor appointment was set for 14:20, and I was requested to ensure that I turn up on time. No need to tell me – I say it myself but punctuality is one of my strong points!

Doctor's receptionist misses the point of coming in a little early

So I did. I was still waiting at 14:35 when the doc came out – but he wasn’t looking in my direction.

“Miss Jones?”

The lady next to me stood up and started straightening her dress. “Finally!” she muttered. “Late as usual…” She gathered her bags and followed the doc.

The door closed behind them, but another opened on the other side of the waiting room. A smartly dressed gentleman walked through and reported at the front desk.

“Jeff Smith. I’m here for my 14:40.”

The receptionist covered the mouthpiece of her phone and looked up.

“You were requested to be here 10 minutes early to avoid being late” she barked, and went back to her phone call. “Sorry about that – you were saying something about satin?”

Aside from the personal phone call, the receptionist had a fair point – people often do turn up late and really mess things up for others. Building in a time buffer zone helps to reduce the likelihood of this problem; pseudo punctuality.

Waiting for the plane which is already there.
Waiting for the plane which is already there.

It’s like when we’re asked to turn up 2 hours early before a flight. How people can look forward to a holiday for months ahead, and then still not factor in delays and still turn up late is beyond me. At Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, the automated announcement on the loudspeaker is classic Dutch directness when a poor soul hasn’t been punctual and able to check in on time: “John Smith you’re holding up the flight. Please check in immediately”. Yep – nothing wrong in a bit of public naming and shaming when you’re causing hundreds of other people to be late because you can’t tell the time!

Anyway. In the doctor’s waiting room it was a different story because the receptionist had completely missed the point – Jeff was actually in time for his 14:40 appointment (which was itself running late).

Still thinking about Miss Jones and her late appointment, I started to question how it is that it’s acceptable for doctors and dentists to keep patients waiting, but seemingly never the other way around.

This is crazy! If we’re late, we miss our appointment, or the plane leaves and takes off without us or whatever. It’s our fault and we suffer the consequences. But if a doctor is late by 5 minutes it doesn’t affect him; not because he’s salaried but because the consequences are carried on to the next patient…and the one after that and so on until it’s closing time.

In other words, there’s a knock-on effect. Doc is late by 5 minutes, and the following 20 patients are also late by 5 minutes – a cumulative value of just over an hour and a half. It’s getting on for the butterfly effect where a small change leads to much bigger ones. Maybe it does here too – a patient is late for his job interview and doesn’t get his job.

Or someone misses his plane… 😉

From planes to trains

Ah yes, back to our airport scenario where we’re called to arrive early to ensure that we’re not late for the plane. But isn’t it more common that it’s the plane or the airport staff which keeps us waiting? And if that plane takes off 5 minutes late, the total man hours of delay accumulates very quickly. Butterfly effect? You’d think that aircraft staff would be especially keen to avoid hurricanes! 😉

Surely punctuality should be rewarded – but it seems that the opposite is true; being punctual doesn’t count for anything, even penalised.

Take for instance, the train conductor on my morning commute. He walks along the carriage asking for tickets to inspect. Although people see and hear him coming they wait until he’s standing over them and asking for their ticket before they start rummaging around in handbags and wallets to pull out their ticket ready for inspection.

Personally, I like to be ready in advance (besides, knowing I’m going to be interrupted from reading my book isn’t handy!). He walks towards me, he sees me, my arm is holding out my ticket ready for his cursory glance, and…he asks the person on the other side of the aisle for their ticket(!). Said passenger bends down to pick up her handbag. She rummages through it and pulls out a purse. Flips it open and fumbles to find her ticket.

And me? Forgotten, and kept waiting. *growl* 🙁

It seems that good time keepers just aren’t recognised.

Problems at the roots?

Anyway. That’s planes and trains – infamous for tardy time keeping. (Begin sarcasm tag) It’s not like they need to run on a timetable or anything…(end sarcasm tag).

Some time ago I wrote a post about how being late is sometimes unavoidable, but measures can be taken to alleviate some of the problems that being late can cause.

Sometimes though, being late really can’t be helped, and I’ve learned to try to get morning appointments so that accumulated lateness is minimal. Like today though, it’s not always possible and I’ll need to literally join the queue of other patients.

But – sometimes being late is inevitable, or even avoidable. The power hungry doc receptionist who’ll spend 5 minutes tapping away at a screen before checking someone in, or chatting away “Oh doctor, giggle giggle, yes, what? Oh this. Yes, I just threw it on. Do you like it? It’s made of satin.”


Admittedly I don’t have patience for these kinds of people. These are the people who have turned being punctual into a sop for other people who can’t keep time.

Lateness ripples through the waiting patients downstream in the river of time. As the cause of lateness, perhaps this explains why Public Service Agent Miss Blond 00:07 is so keen on holding a tight rein on the appointment schedule.

Psychological problems

All that said, I should mention that in fairness it’s not always the fault of the receptionist – or the doc. It’s the patient.

A German flatmate once told me about some research she’d read where it was found that if someone talking in a public phone box (which, incidentally, dates the research!) knew that someone was waiting for them then they would spend longer on that phone call than otherwise.

Whether this is a psychological phenomenon (“Look at how popular I am – people want to talk to me for so long“) or that they were made to wait so they’ll do the same I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s perceived time dilation by those waiting for their turn. I mostly suspect that they realise the importance of time on the phone so they make the most of it.

I think the last comes into play with patients who are called in late for their appointment.

Having invested so long in waiting for their appointment and their time with the doc, some people wish to make the most of it whilst they’re there, or even spend 10 minutes complaining about being late – making the problem even worse!

Time’s up!

It’s 14:50. I’m late, I suppose as I always knew I would be. The doc walks in and calls me through.

“I’m running late, so I’m going to have to rush you.”

“That’s fine. I understand.” Yeah, I understand you can’t tell the time and can’t apologise for it.

He leads me to his room and spends a few minutes staring at his monitor, then asks me what my problem is. Funny – I was hoping he was going to tell me. Anyway, we have a discussion at the end of which he looks away from the monitor and for the first time looks at me.

“Mr Wandason, this is very serious. You should have come in earlier!”

It would have made no difference doc – you can’t even handle it when I’m on time.

He writes out the prescription and I leave, walking through the waiting room which has evidently fills up faster than the rate the patients are being seen.

Jeff is visibly narked off for being kept waiting. I understand how he feels.

I walk into the pharmacy to pick up my prescription. There’s a customer ticket machine there which dispenses numbers so people know who got there first and who’s turn is next, so I take my ticket. It turns out I’m next but I can see the assistant pharmacist is stirring her coffee and facing the opposite direction.

I sit down and wait, presumably, for her coffee to cool, till she’s had a sip and feels that she’s ready to see me.

Ah well. Being punctual doesn’t just mean turning up on time – it means we need to be flexible enough to accommodate for those around us who can’t be 🙁


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1 Comment

  1. I realize I’m an optimist whenever I turn up ten minutes early for a medical appointment, considering how unlikely it is I’ll be seen on time. The good old NHS runs at its own speed. At a fracture clinic in the London Hospital once when I’d waited for four hours after my appointment time, a doctor came out and harangued the subdued and resigned patients, telling us not to bother the nurses. No one had been, but we were all too ground down to argue.

    But when I’ve paid to go privately, it’s another story. Somehow, magically, pay at point of service and doctors and dentists find they can run to time.

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