So Why Are Waiting Room Magazines So Old?

Gossip magazinesEver wonder why the magazines in your doctor’s waiting room are so out of date? One office I was in had a Golf Digest from 2012. Are our docs just trying to bore us to death? Do they put out only old magazines and keep the new ones for themselves? Or is something else going on?

New Zealand doctor Bruce Arroll kept getting complaints about the magazines in his general practice office, so he and a colleague decided to find out what was really happening. Their findings were published in the traditionally lighthearted Christmas issue of the normally serious BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).

Arroll put out 87 magazines stacked into three mixed piles in the waiting room. Some were new; some were a year old. The mix included newsy magazines, such as Time and the Economist, and gossipy magazines about celebrities.

It didn’t take long for the magazines to begin disappearing. After 31 days, nearly half the magazines had disappeared, and the study was halted. But here’s the best part: Few of the newsmagazines disappeared, but nearly all of the gossips rags had. And which ones were pilfered the fastest? Yep, the newest ones. Here’s a graph showing how fast the supply of gossipy versus non-gossipy magazines dwindled:

Survival probability of magazines in doctor offices

So there you have it. Don’t blame the doctors; blame the pilfering patients for the dearth of decent reading material in waiting rooms.

Before you laugh at doing research on such a minor problem, Arroll points out that this could be a big money saver for doctors and patients. As he semi-jokingly explained in the study, if doctors keep replacing the magazines that disappear, it could cost thousands of dollars a year or more — “resources that could be better used for healthcare. Practices should consider using old copies of the Economist and Time magazine as a first step towards saving costs.”

He also noted that although he believes this study to be the first to rigorously examine this disappearing-magazine phenomenon, “we have to acknowledge Pulitzer Prize winner and [American] humorist Hal Boyle who wrote on this very topic 44 years ago.”

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Boyle, a longtime Associated Press columnist, also wrote that “patients are responsible for the disappearance of new magazines.” His “research,” however, concluded that there could be an upside for doctors: “Practitioners should choose magazines that are between 20 and 50 years old so as not to be caught out by patients asking about new procedures or drugs that are recommended in those magazines.”

Photo: hutchyb/iStockGraph courtesy the BMJ

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