Whether you’re a healthcare provider, physician, medical director, or healthcare IT professional, you’re able to look at what you do from two different perspectives: that of a healthcare professional providing a service, and that of a patient, or consumer.
When viewing the waiting process from this dual lens, frustration exists on both sides. On the side of the provider, unforeseen circumstances can completely upset a day’s workflow, leading to irritation and stress as patient flows are disrupted and restored. From the perspective of a patient, any wait that is uncertain, longer than expected, unfair, or unexplained can turn a positive experience into a negative one — and that threshold can be surpassed in a matter of minutes, according to a recent study by Vitals.
In fact, the Vitals study indicates that patient satisfaction drops off dramatically as soon as wait times reach twenty minutes — only one minute higher than the national average of 19 minutes, 19 seconds. It’s a tricky balancing act, and one that many may consider “out of their control.” But here’s the dirty truth:
It’s not about the length of the wait.
Contrary to popular belief, the emotions we associate with waiting are triggered less by the duration of the wait and more by whether our expectations are met--or unmet. Consider the frustration inherent in the following scenarios:
Scenario A. You input an address into your GPS during traffic hour and are given a route that should take 45 minutes. It takes you over an hour, despite assurances that it was the fastest route.
Scenario B. You walk into an urgent care clinic and have a seat to wait your turn, but another walk-in patient arrives and is called back before you.
Scenario C. You’re told that your wait at the DMV will be 30 minutes, but it’s been 45 and you haven’t heard a peep. If you’d known it would take this long…
In each of these scenarios, it’s not necessarily the time that frustrates you, but your unmet expectations.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways that healthcare providers can inject transparency into the waiting process, helping to create realistic expectations for patients from the outset. These solutions are especially useful for practices that cater to a high volume of walk-in patients, or a mixture of walk-in and scheduled appointments.
1. Give your prospective patients an alternative to your waiting room.
Consider offering flexible reservations on your website and other web properties. Then, allow patients to check in, view the current wait status, and wait from the comfort of their home or a nearby coffee shop. Send them a text message when they’re ready to be seen. This puts the patient back in control of the waiting experience, and gives them greater flexibility over their time.
2. Be transparent about delays.
Keep patients up-to-date and informed. If you experience a delay, be proactive in your communication. Send a quick text message conveying that there’s a delay, and include some information about the impact on the patient. Will their reservation be pushed back 30 minutes? An hour?
You can also use an in-lobby waiting room TV or screen to display wait status and delay information, so that patients waiting in your lobby are always know where they stand in the queue.
3. Remove uncertainty and unfairness.
Remove the perception of unfairness by giving patients insight into their position in the queue. When a patient checks in, let them know that patients in front of them in line may be waiting somewhere other than in the waiting room. This will prevent patients in your lobby from getting upset when someone with a reservation is called back upon arrival.
4. Collect feedback.
It’s hard to improve without any insight into what you could be doing better. Many practices are moving toward a one-question (Net Promoter Score™), post-discharge survey to better gauge patient satisfaction. As you work toward a more optimized waiting process, keep an eye on your scores for any expected improvements.
5. Automate and iterate.
Finally, use technology to automate these processes. For example, automate the survey process so that a text message survey is automatically sent to patients after discharge. With many of these processes on autopilot, you can focus your resources where they’re needed most.
The important thing to keep in mind is that you can dramatically improve the patient experience without actually making the wait any shorter. It’s all about addressing patient expectations at the source.
Interested in learning more about the psychology of waiting? Download the full white paper here.