Structures of power and inequality shape day-to-day life for individuals who are poor, imposing waiting in multiple forms and for a variety of services, including for healthcare (Andaya, 2018a; Auyero, 2012; Strathmann and Hay, 2009). Constraints, such as the age requirements for Medicare, losing employer-provided health insurance, or the bureaucracy involved in filing for disability often require people to wait to follow recommendations for medical treatments. In 2016–2017, we conducted 52 narrative interviews in St. Louis, a city with significant racial and economic health inequities and without Medicaid expansion. We interviewed people with one or more chronic illnesses for which they were prescribed medication and who identified as having difficulties affording their prescriptions. Throughout the interviews, participants frequently recounted 1) experiences of waiting for care, along with other services, and 2) the range of strategies they utilized to manage the waiting. In this article, we develop the concept of active waiting to describe both the lived experiences of waiting for care and the responses that people devise to navigate, shorten, or otherwise endure waiting. Waiting is structured into healthcare and other social services at various scales in ways that reinforce feelings of marginalization, and also that require work on the part of those who wait. While much medical and public health research focuses on issues of diagnostic or treatment delay, we conclude that this conceptualization of active waiting provides a far more productive frame for accurately understanding the emotional and physical experiences of individuals who are disproportionately poor and made to wait for their care. Only with such understanding can we hope to build more just and compassionate social systems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113296
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Nov 2020


  • Chronic illness
  • Health inequalities
  • Poverty
  • Social services
  • United States
  • Waiting for care


Dive into the research topics of 'Waiting for care: Chronic illness and health system uncertainties in the United States'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this