5 strategies to standardize healthcare wait times

Wait times for healthcare services vary broadly throughout the country, but strategies that were effective in other sectors could reduce these disparities, according to a new report from the Institute of Medicine.

Waits for services range from same day appointments to several months later, according to a study committee chaired by Gary Kaplan, M.D., CEO of Seattle's Virginia Mason Health System. The causes also vary widely, including care and reimbursement complexity; priority-based waitlists; geographic and financial obstacles; mismatched supply and demand; and the provider-centered scheduling model.

Kaplan and the committee found numerous negative consequences associated with long waits and access delays, including worse care outcomes, lower patient satisfaction and damage to provider reputation. Last year, an investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs, which sponsored the report, found more than 57,000 patients had to wait at least 90 days for an appointment.

Although no two providers have exactly the same needs or circumstances, the committee recommended several universally applicable principles to standardize wait times. They suggest providers:

  • Immediately engage patient concerns
  • Solicit patient feedback on their preferences for timing and nature of care
  • Establish contingency plans for patient surges
  • Promote alternatives to in-person physician care, such as wider use of non-physician providers and telephone consultation
  • Conduct ongoing evaluation of both wait times and conditions in each care setting

The committee also noted several steps national leaders can take to further these goals, such as coordinated, interdepartmental federal initiatives and tested national standards. Leaders at individual healthcare providers can promote similar goals by basing their frontline scheduling protocols on basic access principles and actively involving patients and their families in the access-reform process, according to the report.

Research also indicates online reviews can be a positive motivator to improve wait times, FiercePracticeManagement previously reported, and some providers now actively monitor online feedback for such complaints.

"Everyone would like to hear the words, 'How can we help you today?' when reaching out for healthcare assistance," Kaplan said in a statement. "Healthcare that embraces this philosophy is patient- and family-centered and implements the knowledge of systems strategies for matching supply and demand. Care with this commitment is feasible and found in practice today, but it is not common. Our report lays out a road map to improve that."

To learn more:
- download the report
- read the statement