Anyone who has ever visited a doctor’s office knows that a long wait can be frustrating and anxiety-inducing, but long patient wait times also affect overall satisfaction with healthcare providers. Worse, they can keep patients from getting the care they need from their physician.
While some waits are unavoidable, many hospitals and healthcare facilities have taken steps to become more efficient and transparent. The average patient wait time in the United States was 18 minutes and 13 seconds, according to a 2018 Vitals study. This number has decreased significantly since 2009 but is still longer than most would like to wait.
In emergency rooms, waits vary greatly. As of March 2019, data from Pro Publica showed the District of Columbia saw the longest wait time with an average of 49 minutes before being seen by a doctor. Colorado clocked in with the shortest average wait time at just 10 minutes.
A development that is likely decreasing emergency room and doctors’ offices wait times is the increase of alternative healthcare facilities. For non-emergency after-hours issues, patients can use an urgent care clinic. If they’re unable to get into their doctor at a convenient time, they can turn to a walk-in clinic. Walk-in clinics and retail facilities showed patient wait times of 30 or fewer minutes without an appointment.
The Effects of Long Patient Wait Times
According to the 2018 Vitals study, there’s a strong correlation between how long a patient had to wait and the star rating of the healthcare facility. Physicians with the highest rating had an average wait of just over 13 minutes while those with the lowest ratings had average wait times of more than 34 minutes.
It’s possible that aside from the frustration of the wait, patients see this as poor office management. Perhaps, in some cases, it is truly indicative of how doctors manage their patients and their care.
“Wait times are a highly visible indicator of our performance. No other metric tells us the state of our process so clearly,” said Aneesh Suneja, MBA, co-author of “Lean Doctors” and founder of FlowOne Lean Consulting.
Furthermore, long patient wait times affect not just the perception of care but the actual care that patients receive. In fact, up to 30% of patients have left a physician’s office before being seen because of the wait time. Twenty% would consider changing providers over long waits.
It’s clear that continuing to track and improve the time it takes for a patient to see a provider is an important part of providing quality care. Let’s look at some steps that could help improve patient wait times and the patient waiting room experience.
Ways to Improve Patient Wait Times
Many factors affect wait times, including physician shortages and an aging population. Some waits are simply unavoidable. Still, there are steps healthcare providers can take to ensure that patients are able to receive the care they need in a timely fashion.
A lot of patient frustration and walkouts could be solved with clear communication. Calling patients ahead of time to let them know that the office is severely behind allows them to adjust their schedule. If that’s not possible, having support staff acknowledge the wait and give an estimated time that a patient will see a doctor can impact the perception of care as well.
Grouping similar appointments is another way to keep healthcare professionals focused and segment the day into manageable workloads. For example, if possible, schedule all blood pressure checks at a certain time of day or a few back-to-back physicals. This segmenting of tasks can get nurses and doctors into a flow and help them accomplish things faster.
Some frustration that customers feel when dealing with doctor’s offices may be caused by loss of control. Allowing patients to self-schedule, having a block of time for same-day appointments or designated walk-in hours gives some control back to patients and helps them better schedule their healthcare appointments into their day.
Allowing patients to check in online can improve the patient waiting room experience and reduce the time spent at the office. It also frees office staff to be available to waiting patients instead of taking insurance information and explaining paperwork. In addition, offering a way for patients to contact their doctor online for quick questions can reduce the number of office visits needed and decrease wait times.
If patient wait times are severe in a healthcare facility, it may help to create a task force to evaluate why the staff is falling behind and come up with individualized suggestions to make the organization more efficient.
Ways to Improve Emergency Department Wait Times
Emergency departments obviously see their own challenges when reducing wait times. A study published in Clinical and Experimental Emergency Medicine in 2016 suggested a few key ways emergency rooms can expedite their processes to get patients seen more quickly. They include these, among other recommendations:
- Doctor-led triage: A review confirmed that having a senior doctor involved in the triage process effectively reduces crowding and patient wait time.
- Streaming: This is the allocation of similar patients to a similar work stream or dedicated staff in a specific area of the emergency department. Streaming results in reduced wait times and less time spent in the ER overall.
- Primary care in the emergency room: Having primary care physicians available in the emergency department for patients with less urgent needs resulted in a 19% decrease in the average wait time for patients and overall better patient satisfaction.
Positively Impact Patient Satisfaction
There’s significant room for healthcare professionals to have a positive impact on patient satisfaction as it relates to patient wait times. Ensuring that patients have a positive experience and receive the care they need in a timely fashion is incredibly important to the success of healthcare facilities and our healthcare system.
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