Waiting for the doctor is not enjoyable. It can increase anxiety levels as patients wonder how the appointment will go, if waiting will delay the rest of the day, and if being around others in the waiting room will expose them to illness. Extended patient wait times are not good for healthcare facilities either, since it means crowded waiting rooms and deterred potential patients. Patient wait time has a financial aspect as well, which is affected poorly the longer wait times become.
Improving patient wait times is a constant goal for most medical practices, but the task can seem overwhelming. There are many factors in play, and the human element is the biggest one. Despite appearances, there are some tools medical facilities can employ to improve the situation.
Patience Is a Virtue
Average patient wait times sit at about 20 minutes, which 43% of patients polled in a 2017 survey found frustrating. In fact, the wait makes nearly 2 out of 5 patients frustrated with their physician before he or she even comes in, and 61% of surveyed physicians have experienced negative feedback regarding wait times from their patients.
Unfortunately, the human element is the most common cause of extended patient wait times. 64% of physicians cite patients arriving later than their scheduled appointment time as the biggest reason clinics and practices run behind schedule. “Unexpected patient issues” wasn’t far behind, while technical difficulties and staffing challenges fell significantly lower
A Delicate Balancing Act
Doctors offices must find the balance between overbooking and having enough visits to not lose money from no-shows, which can cost an average of $200. That means that two no-shows every day will cost a practice more than $10,000 at minimum.
More than half of the doctors surveyed claimed that patient wait time has minimal impact on their ability to retain patients, while nearly 30% expected it has a moderate impact. However, according to the patients surveyed, the top three consequences of long wait times are leaving the clinic without seeing the physician, advising others against visiting the clinic in question, and switching to a new doctor. With these responses in mind, it is easy to see how long patient wait times can harm a practice’s finances and reputation.
This is the vicious cycle: practices overbook patients to compensate for the financial losses of missed appointments, but the long wait times that result actually cause missed appointments. An additional problem is that leaving after a long wait can sour a patient, and that poor opinion can spread to their contacts, leading to even more business lost.
Ways to Reduce Patient Wait Times
Amidst the frustrating cycle, there is hope. There are strategies that can minimize wait times, and even the smallest change can have large dividends. Consider the following tools:
Let Patients Know What to Expect
The consensus is that being told about wait times beforehand limits frustration. When patients arrive for their appointments or as walk-ins, let them know how long they can expect to wait. This requires a bit of calculation on a receptionist’s part, taking into consideration the number of appointments ahead of the patient and any no-shows.
Be Proactive About No-Shows
While emergencies will always arise and the possibility of patients failing to arrive for their appointments cannot be completely eliminated, it can be minimized on two fronts. Automated reminder messages can remind patients about their appointments hours and days in advance, reducing the risk that patients simply forget about their slots.
Many practices have also found it effective to establish a late-arrival policy, letting patients know there are consequences to multiple late arrivals. A practice in Massachusetts sends warning letters the first three times they are more than five minutes late, and on the fourth time asks the patient to find another provider. While this may seem dramatic, it can have a dramatic and positive effect on a practice’s wait times.
Gather Patient Information Before the Appointment Begins
While not many people love filling out paperwork before their doctor’s appointment, most people do expect it. Encourage patients to be very thorough when filling it out. With comprehensive information, physicians can make more informed assessments before the appointment begins.
Collaborate with a Telephone Triage Service or Utilize TeleHeath Technologies
If patients can communicate with triage nurses before they come in, those who do not need urgent care can be dissuaded from lengthening waiting lines. Telehealth services can help in a similar way, though a practice needs to have sufficient staff to make using it effective.
Adopt a Patient Portal or Use a Mobile Queue
Allowing patients to see where they fall in the line can help alleviate the frustration of waiting.
Identify and troubleshoot bottlenecks in your software usage. YourReplace time-consuming applications with new, time-saving ones.
Identify Areas of Needed Improvement
Having a clear understanding of relevant metrics will help address problem places. It may be time to invest in software to that end. Where software bottlenecks exist, staff may need training or the software may need to be optimized to fit a specific practice. Updates may be in the queue that can save time. Tech should make a practice more efficient, not less.