The Psychology of Waiting vs. Patient Experience Enemy Number One

Twenty-two minutes can seem like long time for a patient to wait in the reception area. Various national surveys peg the average wait time to see a physician at the 20-minute mark…with patient satisfaction dropping lower every five minutes.

What’s more, virtually all patients perceive their wait to be too long. Perhaps the most influential factor in a patient’s “satisfaction scoreboard” is when they feel they must wait for healthcare services.

Waiting for an appointment, waiting to be seen, waiting on the phone, or waiting for time with the doctor.

The service industry has long recognized that there is a significant gap between the actual waiting time and an individual’s perceived waiting time. It’s helpful for healthcare providers to understand this gap and address the underlying “psychology of waiting.” The patient experience can be enhanced when both the actual waiting time and the perceived waiting time are minimized.

The waiting problem, in its various forms, is also an aggravation for the healthcare provider, hospital or medical practice. What’s more, the perception of waiting can be more significant than the actual waiting time.

Waiting—even the perception of wait time—can drain revenues and resources, and ultimately lose patients to the competition. We see that when…

  • Patients who must wait weeks or months for an appointment are likely to shop elsewhere or simply not show up;
  • New patients, particularly those with no bond to the practice, provider or staff, feel unwelcome; and
  • Waiting feels discourteous; slighting the patient as “unimportant” can sour the overall patient experience.

Exactly how long is too long to wait? Unfortunately, the length of time is subjective, and the perception of a wait time (and how long is too long) varies greatly. For example, when the patient is worried, uncomfortable or in pain—which is often the situation—time seems to pass slowly and the sense of a longer wait magnifies the annoyance.

Understanding the psychology of waiting

Fortunately for the healthcare industry, the concept of waiting and the perception of wait times has been the subject of a number of academic studies. Publications such as the International Journal of Service Industry Management have presented research works that provide healthcare professionals with an understanding of the psychology of waiting.

Research has isolated eight defining “propositions” that can be addressed in managing patient perceptions of waiting times in the service delivery process. Although most are not surprising, all apply to healthcare. They are:

 1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time

2. Pre-process waits feel longer than in-process waits

3. Anxiety makes waits feel longer

4. Uncertain waits seem longer than certain waits

5. Unexplained waits seem longer than explained waits

6. Unfair waits seem longer than equitable waits

7. More valuable the service, the longer people will wait

8. Solo waiting feels longer than group waiting.

The ideal solution, of course, is to be so operationally efficient that a patient never has to wait at any point in the delivery cycle. But plans, processes, people and patients themselves are not that perfect. So, in addition to minimizing the actual wait time, it’s also important to reduce the perceived wait time.

Guided in part by the eight propositions, healthcare providers can design the patient experience in ways that productively make use of time, reduce anxiety, explain delays and other techniques that address the perception (and frustration) of waiting and enhance patient satisfaction.

Additional posts in this series will present some of the solutions that hospitals and physician offices are using. Let us know what’s been successful for you and we’ll include them among the best, real-world ideas.

Stewart Gandolf, MBA

About Stewart Gandolf, MBA

Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is both the Publisher of and the Co-Founder of Healthcare Success. Stewart has written for dozens of leading healthcare publications and spoken at hundreds of venues on a variety of topics including marketing, reputation management and patient experience. Additionally, he has personally consulted for over 1,500 hospitals and practices. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Stewart worked for leading advertising agencies including J. Walter Thompson.

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5 Responses to The Psychology of Waiting vs. Patient Experience Enemy Number One

  1. Dawn Ortiz December 19, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    Thanks, Stewart, for shining a light on “the wait”–a critical part of the patient experience. Through digital signage and on-hold messaging, our company specializes in helping hospitals and other healthcare organizations reduce the perception of the wait time and use that time to soothe anxieties, drive revenue to service lines, provide health education, and more.

    Here’s how we transform the wait with on-hold messaging:

    For more information, email or call 800.800.1090.

  2. Aslam K.Jigar December 19, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    A wonderful article….i enjoyed reading it….

  3. Geoff Halstead November 4, 2014 at 8:56 am #

    Excellent article and focus on a key issues in Patient Experience. At Connexient, we are working on innovative pilots with several clients to integrate appointment reminders with our MediNav Patient Experience, which has a Parking Planner and Indoor Navigation to then get patients to their appointments with less stress.

    As we move forward down this path, we are working towards an “Airline Check-in” model where we can dynamically update the organizations scheduling system so appointments can be better managed to actual reduce wait times.

    Technology is not the whole solution but – when integrated into Enterprise IT and processes – can have a big impact on improving both the perception and real pain points of Patient Experience.

  4. Atiqur Rahman August 6, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

    Thank’s,Stewart for this wonderful article,i enjoyed reading it,can you give any suggestion if any opd campaign can be done like Patience Vs Patient in correlation with the waiting stigma in the opd which patient don’t like at all.


  1. Improving Wait Times: Tips to Creating a Better Patient Experience | Healing Spaces - September 17, 2013

    […] peg the average wait time to see a provider at 24 minutes. But, as our previous post discusses, the “psychology of waiting” produces a significant gap between the actual wait […]

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