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19 Etiquette Mistakes You’re Making at the Doctor’s Office

Updated: May 14, 2024

From eavesdropping on other patients to using speakerphone in the waiting room, our experts share the worst doctor's office etiquette mistakes—and what you should do instead

woman shaking the doctor's hand
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Good etiquette is good for your health

Medical spaces are a unique combination of majorly stressful and potentially boring—a combo that can lead to etiquette mistakes with serious consequences, says Lizzie Post, the co-president of the Emily Post Institute and author of Higher Etiquette. Between stress, sickness, pain, loss and waiting, medical settings aren’t always pleasant. But why does proper etiquette seem to go out the window the minute people walk into these offices?

“People feel vulnerable, which leads to stress, which leads them to act in a rude way, which causes even more stress, which leads to more impolite behavior,” Post says. “But two rudes don’t make a polite, and especially in medical situations, being rude won’t get you what you want.”

In some circumstances, bad etiquette may even affect the care you receive. “Medical professionals try to provide the best care possible, but at the end of the day, we are people too, and we’re less likely to go the extra mile if you’re rude,” says nurse practitioner Karyl H., who has 20 years of nursing experience.

On the other hand, practicing polite habits and understanding proper etiquette rules in a medical setting can greatly improve your experience at the doctor’s office—and the experience of others. We spoke with Post and two medical professionals to find out the most common etiquette mistakes patients make. Read on to see if you’re guilty of any of these missteps and what you should do instead.

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About the experts

  • Lizzie Post is the granddaughter of etiquette columnist Emily Post. She is the co-president of the Emily Post Institute, author of Higher Etiquette, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Centennial Edition and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast.
  • Karyl H., MS, is nurse practitioner with more than 20 years of nursing experience. She is a nurse manager supervising the nursing staff of a large medical practice in the Midwest.
  • Darja Djordjevic, MD, PhD, is a psychiatrist, social anthropologist and researcher with Stanford Medicine. She is a faculty fellow at Stanford Brainstorm, an academic lab dedicated to mental-health innovation.

doctor on the phone
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Not calling to inform them you’re running late

Etiquette mistakes around appointment times are some of the most common and most frustrating, according to Darja Djordjevic, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist, social anthropologist and researcher with Stanford Medicine. Every medical office has no-show, cancellation and late policies, yet many people ignore them, don’t call, or ask for an exception to be made—all of which are disrespectful of the doctor’s time. “We understand that things just happen sometimes, but all we ask is that you call and let us know,” Dr. Djordjevic says.

Do this instead: Call the doctor’s office as soon as you know that you’ll be late (and certainly if you need to cancel). Then ask them how you should proceed. They may not have a busy schedule and may tell you it’s fine, or they may ask you to reschedule the appointment, which you should do graciously.

Young man checking in for medical appointment
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Crowding the front desk

It’s always good etiquette to give people their personal space, especially at medical offices when waiting for your turn at the front desk. “It’s about privacy,” Post says. “You don’t know if they’re discussing health concerns or making a payment or something else with sensitive information.”

Do this instead: Stand in an orderly line, giving the person at the desk at least three feet of space, Post says. Even after the person appears to be finished, wait until the front-desk staff calls you forward to approach the desk.

woman talking on speaker phone in the waiting room at the doctors
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Using speakerphone in the waiting room

In public spaces, talking on speakerphone, watching YouTube, listening to music, FaceTiming your mom, letting your toddler watch a video, playing a game, voice-dictating emails and any other activity that makes a lot of noise is an annoying habit and a big no-no, Post says. “Even if you think you’re being quiet, you’re probably not as quiet as you think, and the noise is very distracting to other people,” she adds.

Do this instead: If you’re listening to anything that makes noise, wear headphones. If you need to make a long call or otherwise speak for more than 30 seconds, step out into the hallway.

chatty girl asking doctor about other patients
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Asking about other patients

You hear a loud scream or see someone who looks particularly ill and wonder, What’s wrong with them? But you should keep your curiosity confined to your thoughts. “Doctor’s offices can have a lot of strange noises or sights, but leave it to the medical staff to take care of it,” Dr. Djordjevic says.

And if you do ask about another patient? “Most likely we won’t comment or will give a generic answer like, ‘Someone’s having a rough day,'” she says. “We cannot give you any information about another patient.”

Do this instead: Don’t ask questions about other patients, no matter how tempting it is! If you’re worried about someone else, it’s a lovely sentiment to express empathy: “Oh, that doesn’t sound fun. I hope they are OK!”

woman with kid talking on her phone while at the doctor's
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Taking an unrelated phone call while in the exam room

The aide is just taking your blood pressure, so it’s fine to keep the conversation with your best friend going, right? Wrong. It’s not only rude to be on the phone while the doctor is present—it’s also disrespectful to be chatting on the phone when any of the medical staff are interacting with you, Post says. “This is disrespectful of them as human beings,” she explains. “You should treat everyone with kindness.”

Now, there are exceptions when it comes to phone calls during an appointment. Many studies have concluded that feelings of medical mistrust are prominent among Black and marginalized patients, which means that keeping a loved one, friend or trusted partner on speakerphone during appointments can not only offer support and advocacy for the patient but also aid in question-asking and note-taking.

Do this instead: Practice good phone etiquette. If the person on the other line is important to your exam or simply another set of ears, just let the physician or nurse know. If the conversation isn’t relevant to your medical exam, hang up as soon as someone comes in.

doctor on ipad
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Snooping around for your medical chart

It can be tempting to take a peek at your physician’s iPad or computer, but keep in mind that doctors’ immediate notes won’t always be clear to the patient. “Back when we used folders, I had a patient who grabbed her file off the front of the exam-room door and read through it while she was waiting for the doctor,” says Karyl. “On a previous visit, the doctor had made a note that she was ‘unremarkable,’ which in medical speak just means there’s nothing noticeably wrong with you. She took it as a personal insult and even yelled at the doc. It took me a long time to calm her down and explain the situation.”

While health-care organizations today are required to give patients access to their full health records in digital format, you may not have ready access to notes written in your chart. And even if you do, you may not be able to understand them fully.

Do this instead: When you access your medical records online, typically through an online portal, write down any questions you may have about results or notes made. And make it a point to talk about them with your doctor.

doctor and patient talking
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Talking down to medical assistants

Certified nursing assistants (CNAs), nurses, phlebotomists, imaging technicians, janitors and other medical staff all provide important services. Yet too many people see the doctor as the only one worthy of respect. “Don’t talk down to us or argue with us,” Karyl says. “We’re there to help you.” Also be wary of commenting on their choice of medical career in a way that comes across as judgmental or sexist—for example, asking a male nurse why he’s not a doctor.

Do this instead: This should be common sense, but treating everyone with kindness and respect, regardless of their job title, is good etiquette.

Patient and female nurse walking through the hospital and talking
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Monopolizing the staff’s time with small talk

There is a fine line between talking too much and not talking enough at the doctor’s office. “There’s certainly space for some small talk, as it helps patients feel more comfortable,” Dr. Djordjevic says. “And we do want to hear what’s going on in your life, particularly as it affects your current condition.”

The problem is when those few minutes of chitchat or background information turn into a 30-minute monologue. While it’s understandable—talking to medical staff may be someone’s only human interaction that day—you have to remember that there are other patients waiting to be seen, Post adds.

Do this instead: Small talk belongs at the beginning of the appointment, not at the end, Post says. And “when they ask you at the end, ‘Is there anything else?’ they’re just asking about your health concerns,” she adds. Pay attention to the person’s body language, and look for signs that they are trying to end the conversation. Be mindful of the time, and stay within your appointment slot. If you have more things to tell the doctor, you can email them or send them a message through the patient portal.

young man wearing a mask at the doctors
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Not following safety protocols

Most medical offices have rules about masking, wearing gloves or not coming into the office with certain symptoms. These rules can be frustrating, especially if you don’t see the reason for them, but it’s poor etiquette to ignore them. “The rules are there for your protection,” Dr. Djordjevic says, adding that it’s rude to argue with the front desk or other medical staff about it. Some of these good manners have been unfortunately politicized, but when it comes to health policies, it’ not about politics—it’s about public safety.

Do this instead: Wear the mask or gloves as directed, even if you don’t think you need them. If you genuinely feel that you can’t abide by a safety protocol, then call the office ahead of time and ask what they would like you to do instead. Or you can request a telehealth appointment.

three women on a bench waiting at the doctors
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Taking pictures or videos of others (even accidentally)

This is a strange etiquette breach that has become more common in recent years, Karyl says. It usually happens when someone is taking a photo or video for social media in the waiting room and either accidentally or purposely films other patients. “We had a young woman who liked to record TikTok videos in the waiting room, but too often other people ended up in the background of the videos, which violates their privacy,” she says. Another situation she saw involved a person secretly snapping a picture of another patient and then posting it to social media with a made-up sob story invented to garner sympathy.

Do this instead: Do not take pictures or videos in the waiting room at all. “Doctor’s offices should be a safe place for everyone,” Karyl says.

patient taking things from doctor drawers
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Rummaging through the exam-room drawers

We get it: You’re bored, your phone battery is almost dead, and the doctor is running late, so you want to do something to kill the time in the doctor’s office. It may be tempting to look through the drawers and cabinets to see what weird medical equipment is in there. But resist that urge, Post says. Not only is that not your business, but there may also be things you could contaminate or that could hurt you (although those are normally locked up, Karyl says).

Do this instead: Find other ways to deal with your boredom, and keep your hands off the medical equipment, Post says.

The patient explains the health problems to the doctor
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Lying about your habits

How many drinks per week do you have on average? Do you smoke? You don’t smoke that often, so what’s the harm in omitting that detail, right? Wrong. “Lying is always an etiquette mistake, but lying to a medical professional is even worse because the doctor can’t give you the appropriate care if they don’t know the truth about what you’re doing,” Post says. “Even white lies can hurt you.”

Do this instead: Tell the truth about any habits you have that can impact your health, even if you find them embarrassing or are worried the doctor will be disappointed in you. This includes illegal drug use, sexual activities, binge-eating, alcohol consumption and smoking. “Honestly we’ve seen and heard it all,” Dr. Djordjevic says. “We’re not going to judge you.”

Approaching the Doctor's Office
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Wandering around

Who hasn’t changed into that flimsy paper gown, hopped up onto the exam table and then … waited for what seems like hours? While it’s unlikely the staff has forgotten you, sometimes emergencies come up or schedules run behind. Ideally, there will be someone to come in and update you periodically, but if it’s been a while, it’s normal to want to take matters into your own hands and find out what’s going on.

“Please don’t wander around the offices or exam rooms looking for your doctor, and don’t look anywhere that requires you to open another door,” Dr. Djordjevic says. Not only is that a privacy concern, but you might miss your doctor if they come to your room while you’re out of it.

Do this instead: “It’s fine to poke your head out of your exam-room door or step into the hallway and ask someone to help you,” Dr. Djordjevic says. “There are usually plenty of people around.” If that doesn’t work, use your cellphone to call the front desk directly.

Sick, cough and woman in home with health problem of flu, cold or medical virus. Black female person, pain and coughing for asthma attack, tuberculosis and sore throat of allergy, lungs or pneumonia
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Not covering your coughs and sneezes

It’s not only good etiquette to cover your cough—it also helps prevent the spread of serious respiratory illnesses, including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19. This is a common and gross etiquette mistake that happens in every public space, so it’s worth repeating, Post says.

Coughing and sneezing into your hands or, heaven forbid, straight into the air, spreads germs and makes others very uncomfortable. This is even truer at a doctor’s office, where it’s reasonable to assume that the person coughing or sneezing is ill.

Do this instead: Cover your cough, or sneeze into your bent elbow (not your hands) or into a clean tissue, then dispose of it. Wash your hands (with warm soapy water for 20 seconds), or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Young female patient sits on the examination table at the doctor's office
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Speaking for the patient when you’re the caregiver

As a doctor who works often with children, Dr. Djordjevic says that having caregivers attend appointments with the patient is the norm. Having a loved one with the patient at an important appointment is a great idea, as they can take notes, help relay missed information, remember things and ask questions. But if you’re there as a caregiver, it’s important that you don’t “take over the narrative,” she says. This could look like telling the doctor what you think is really wrong, coming up with diagnoses or answering questions asked directly to the patient.

Do this instead: As tempting as it is to jump in, let the patient answer the questions as best as they can—often, the doctor gets as much information from how they answer questions as they do from the words they say. Wait your turn to speak, and don’t override or interrupt.

two kids running around a waiting room
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Allowing kids to run around the waiting room

Karyl says she’s seen children use the office furniture as a jungle gym, get into things they shouldn’t and bother patients. “But I don’t blame the kids; they are just doing what bored kids do,” she says. “I blame the parents for not teaching them better manners.” Not only can kids get in the way or make a mess, but there are things in medical offices that could be dangerous for children. And let’s not forget the germs they could be exposed to.

Do this instead: If you’re in situation where you have to bring children who aren’t the patient, Post recommends discussing good etiquette with your children beforehand. “Play ‘doctor’s office’ at home so they can practice polite behavior,” she says. “And bring things to keep them fed and entertained.”

Lunchbox with quinoa salad with tomato and cucumber, blue berry and trail mix
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Eating a full meal in the waiting room

Having a little snack while you wait is fine, but eating anything that has strong smells, makes loud noises, is messy or is very distracting should be avoided, Post says. “This is about respecting the other people around you,” she explains. “For instance, you don’t know if someone is fasting in preparation for a blood test or has a severe allergy, and your food could make them uncomfortable.” Plus, there’s the risk of germs from the doctor’s office getting on your food.

Do this instead: Don’t eat in medical offices. If you really need some food, eat a small, non-messy snack like a granola bar or dried fruit.

Sick woman at home video conferencing with doctor using telmedicine digital tablet
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Demanding same-day responses

A common misconception patients have is that because everything is automated now, the whole process runs faster, which is unfortunately not true, according to Dr. Djordjevic. “About 50% of my time on any given day is spent on bureaucratic things, like forms for insurance companies or updating patient notes,” she says. “But patients don’t see that part, so they assume that I should be able to call them back, answer their email or get them test results right away, and then they get frustrated when I can’t do that.”

Do this instead: Ask your doctor when you can expect to hear back from them—and then wait patiently. If it’s past the given timeframe and you still haven’t heard from them, call the front desk or their voicemail and leave one message to follow up.

Senior African American Man Talking On Cellphone Sitting At Home
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Leaving multiple or repeated messages

Which brings us to our next faux pas: leaving multiple messages about the same topic. There are some patients who think that if they haven’t gotten a response, that means the doctor hasn’t heard their message—so they leave another one and another one. “One message is plenty, whether that’s a voicemail or a note through the patient portal,” Dr. Djordjevic says. “I promise you we are getting them.”

Do this instead: At your appointment, ask the doctor how they prefer to communicate, and in what time frame you can typically expect a response. Then leave one message, and practice patience. If it’s a very urgent matter, you can call the front desk and ask them for an update or to pass your concern directly to the doctor.

Why trust us

At Reader’s Digest, we’re committed to producing high-quality content by writers with expertise and experience in their field in consultation with relevant, qualified experts. For this piece on doctor’s office etiquette, Charlotte Hilton Anderson tapped her experience as an etiquette and health writer, as well as interviewed two medical professionals. We rely on reputable primary sources, including government and professional organizations and academic institutions as well as our writers’ personal experience where appropriate. We verify all facts and data, back them with credible sourcing, and revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, our contributors and our editorial policies 

Sources:

  • Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and author of Higher Etiquette; phone interview, April 17, 2024
  • Darja Djordjevic, MD, PhD, child and adolescent psychiatry fellow, and faculty fellow in the Stanford Brainstorm Lab for mental-health innovation; phone interview, April 19, 2024
  • Karyl H., MS, nurse practitioner and nurse manager; phone interview, April 26, 2024
  • JAMA Health Forum: “Perspectives of Black Patients on Racism Within Emergency Care”