How to Keep Patients Happy with Reduced Wait Times

The term “customer service” is used every single day by both business entities and consumers. It appears in mission statements and advertisements. It’s near the top of the consumer priority list when buying food, shopping for cars or visiting the doctor.

We see it so much, it’s become a cliché, and we don’t always see the components that define the term. What comes to mind when you hear about great customer service? Friendly faces? Quality products? What about timeliness?

Timeliness matters, especially for patients waiting to see a doctor. An Institute of Medicine study found that timeliness (or the lack thereof) can actually reduce the effectiveness of good customer service, particularly when it comes to patient wait times.

The study reported that “long wait times may also cause frustration, inconvenience, suffering, and dissatisfaction with the health care system.”

You’re in a physician’s waiting room. How long is too long?

There’s an actual science to this question. Earlier this year, Vitals published its seventh annual wait time report, which studied more than 6 million patient scenarios and pinpointed the exact moment when a long wait time changes a positive experience into a negative one.

Twenty minutes.

Here are the figures:

  • 49% of patients who had a 15-minute wait time gave a positive review of their doctor.
  • Conversely, only 27% of patients who had a 45-minute wait time offered positive reviews.
  • The doctor with the highest overall rating had an average wait time of 13 minutes.
  • The doctor with the lowest rating had an average wait time of 33 minutes.

What causes long wait times?

The Institute of Medicine study cited several causes for inflated wait times, saying the issue was “the product of generally unstructured, non-systematic approaches to the design, implementation, and assessment of scheduling protocols.”

More specifically, the study pointed toward an imbalanced supply and demand and a scheduling system focused on benefitting the provider and not the patient. This incongruence is the result of one simple fact – there is no standard of performance for managing wait times. There are no best practices that doctors can use to standardize the patient’s experience in the waiting room. Not yet, anyway.

Which cities have the longest wait times?

In Vitals’ report, wait data was organized by state, city and type of doctor.

According to their research, in 2016, Alabama had a narrow edge over Mississippi for the country’s longest average wait time (21 minutes and 1 second, versus 21 minutes flat).

Ironically, however, no Alabama or Mississippi cities rank at the top of the long-wait list:

  1.  El Paso, Texas (average wait time of 25 minutes, 5 seconds)
  2.  Miami (22 minutes and 36 seconds)
  3.  Memphis (21 minutes and 24 seconds)
  4.  Las Vegas (20 minutes and 47 seconds)
  5.  Detroit (20 minutes and 4 seconds)

And here are the five types of specialists with the longest wait times:

  1.  Emergency Physician (24 minutes and 41 seconds)
  2.  General Practitioner (22 minutes)
  3.  Pain Management Specialist (22 minutes)
  4.  Plastic Surgeon, Female (22 minutes)
  5.  Orthopedic Surgeon (21 minutes)

What can doctors do to reduce wait times?

There are four things that all medical offices can implement to cut down on time in the waiting room.

  • Analyze wait times in individual offices. The first step is easy: Figure out how long patients are waiting in each individual office. Experts say the third available appointment is typically a great barometer for average wait time, because the first and second appointments are so easily influenced by cancellations and no-shows.
  • Gather patient information prior to the appointment. Allowing patients to fill out forms digitally, before they ever set foot in the office, can shave meaningful minutes off total wait time.
  • Focus on patient interaction. Think of all the things that might frustrate patients – uncomfortable reception areas, lack of WiFi, inattentive staff – and take small steps to eliminating these annoyances by making the patient the focus of the visit.
  • Try telemedicine. Broadcast queues to patients’ mobile devices so they’re not chained to a waiting room. And some offices are even embracing remote care – things like Bluetooth-enabled stethoscopes and high-definition cameras that eliminate the need for some patients to make office visits.
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