Studies Confirm Long Wait Times Erode Satisfaction and Revenue

No one likes to be kept waiting, especially in a hospital or doctor’s office. Few will dispute the fact that it’s important to see your physician. But when the accompanying wait interrupts our daily schedule and forces us to cancel planned activities or lose productivity at work, it’s easy to get angry, frustrated and feel powerless.

Lately, longer in-office wait times seem to be the rule much more than the exception. Nationwide, the average wait to see a doctor is nearly 23 minutes. While many patients consider a delay in schedule to be an unfortunate but accepted part of the day, others aren’t so forgiving and are starting to look for a new doctor.

No matter how good the clinical outcome, patient frustration often erodes patient satisfaction. What’s more, it can also erode revenue.

How much of a role does patient wait time play in overall patient satisfaction?

That question was the subject of a study conducted by the Department of Public Health Sciences, Wake Forest University and the College of Pharmacy and School of Public Health, The Ohio State University. The study examined the relationship between patient waiting time and willingness to return for care with patient satisfaction ratings with primary care physicians. As one might expect, longer waiting times were associated with lower patient satisfaction.

One of the most cogent cases for reducing patient wait times relate directly to the shift in how insurers are compensating physicians. Many of the large national insurers including UnitedHealth Group, Aetna and WellPoint have adopted incentives to compensate physicians for value in addition to volume of services.

UnitedHealth will be offering at least 50 percent to 70 percent of its physician bonuses for reaching cost and quality targets, according to American Medical News. As the nation’s largest health plan, the insurer’s move signifies that the shift from volume to value is here to stay.

While the Wake Forest/Ohio State study showed that longer wait times were associated with lower patient satisfaction, it also said that time spent with the physician was the strongest predictor of patient satisfaction.

What does that mean for your hospital or practice?

The easy answer is that you need to strike a balance between how much time you spend with your patients and how long you keep them waiting. Achieving that equilibrium, however, is much easier said than done.

Since the amount of daily clinic time per physician tends to be a fixed asset, portioned out by patient demand or volume, the more time on average a specific physician spends with an individual patient determines how long a patient has to wait to see that physician.

It’s a real yin-yang situation and one that’s especially challenging to deal with. Here are some suggestions based on effective techniques we’ve encountered.

  • Schedule patients appropriately. Have your staff let them know beforehand how much time they, most likely, will have with you based on the initial complaint.
  • Spend a few minutes at the beginning of the visit setting an agenda based on the clinical needs and the patient’s priorities. That way, patients will know that the doctor will address their most important concerns.
  • Encourage any patients who are usually late to be on time. Accommodating them may delay those who are prompt.
  • Schedule patients at shorter intervals. Instead of booking one patient every five to 10 minutes, book two or three every 15 minutes.
  • Don’t book the first appointment at the same time physicians and staff arrive. This guarantees the day will start behind schedule.
  • Evaluate how patients are checked in and moved into a room. Could paperwork be sent to a patient in advance of the visit? Is there an online patient portal they can access to fill out forms? Once a patient is in a room, does the physician have everything he or she needs to provide appropriate care without having to leave the room?

Lastly, what are some things you can do if patients do end up sitting past their appointment times, which is sometimes unavoidable?

  • A pleasant-looking, comfortable reception area with wireless Internet access and current magazines can help lessen negative feelings.
  • Front office staff can keep patients up-to-date at regular intervals on how long they may be waiting.
  • When possible, call patients ahead of their appointment to postpone or reschedule if there’s a schedule disruption.
  • It’s also especially considerate when a physician pops into the waiting room to let patients know what’s going on and ask if they’d like to reschedule.

Most patients understand that you’re as crazed with the situation as they are and will cut you a good deal of slack. As long as they know you’re respectful of their time.

About Bradley Charbonneau

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