The Case Of The Vanishing Doctor’s Office Magazines

The Case Of The Vanishing Doctor's Office Magazines

Researchers took a deeper look at why the magazine selection in your doctor’s waiting room always seems sub-par. (Photo by Getty Images)

Have you ever wondered why the magazines in your doctor’s office waiting room tend to be many weeks — if not months — old? Is it because the office manager isn’t displaying (or even ordering) the most recent publications, or are patients’ sticky fingers to blame? And what kinds of magazines are usually the first to vanish? 

Bruce Arroll, medical professor of general practice and primary healthcare at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, was tired of hearing his patients complain about the lack of up-to-date magazines in his practice. So he and a few of his colleagues decided to do some investigative research — and their findings are published in the notoriously cheeky Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal.

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Arroll and his team gathered 87 magazines from newsstands, as well as from family and friends, and handed them over to the “Methods Advice Design Team” — a.k.a. the four receptionists — in a general practitioner’s office in Auckland. The receptionists placed the issues into three piles on the tables in the waiting room. The publications fell into three categories: non-gossipy (including Time, The Economist, Australian Women’s Weekly, National Geographic, and BBC History), gossipy (defined as having five or more photos of celebrities on the cover), and most gossipy (defined as having as many as 10 celebrities on the cover).

Most of the magazines — 82 out of 87 — were less than a year old, while 47 magazines were published within the last two months. For tracking purposes, Arroll marked a unique number on the back of each issue. A secret staff member at the practice arrived to work 30 minutes early twice a week, in order to take inventory.

The study was stopped after 31 days, at which point nearly half (47 percent) of the planted magazines had gone missing. Researchers found that the most current magazines were more likely to disappear than the older issues. And of the 27 gossipy magazines in the study, all but one had disappeared. Meanwhile, of all the 19 non-gossipy magazines, only one had disappeared.

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While he points out that this is the first study of its kind, Arroll says that Pulitzer Prize winner and humorist Hal Boyle first wrote about the disappearing-magazine phenomenon 44 years ago. “He began by stating that patients are responsible for the disappearance of new magazines,” Arroll tells Yahoo Health. “However, his ‘research’ concluded that practitioners 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.”

Arroll says more research is needed to definitively say who — or what! — is responsible for the removal of waiting-room publications. “We are not sure if it is the patients, but they are certainly a possibility,” Arroll says, noting that some practices place their magazines in special folders to keep them safe.  “I suspect people think they are public property. I was standing by a patient one day and we were admiring the National Geographic, and she said she thought she would take it as she liked it.”

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