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Doctors and Patient Waiting: Communication with the Patient Makes Wait Time Bearable

Five people waiting in waiting room

Americans are generally quite happy with the care hat they receive from their physicians.  Nevertheless, the most common complaints about physician visits relate to wait times.  Everybody understands the wait times.  Indeed, a few weeks ago there was a Facebook posting about why patients end up waiting past their appointment time.  Physicians feel the stress and staffers feel the anger and frustration of patients.

Time and again it is shown that patient satisfaction starts in the waiting room.  And time and again dissatisfaction is commenced with patients who are unaware of either expected time to see the care provider or reason for the delay.  This gives a great lead in to how to maintain patient happiness: tell the patient the expected wait time or reason for delay and the patient will usually understand.

A doctor’s time is valuable, as is the time of the doctor’s staff.  The patient’s time is also valuable.  The patient may have other appointments or other things to do.  If the patient has a 1:30 appointment, the patient expects to be seen at roughly around that time.  Indeed, that patient may have picked 1:30 because her kids get out of school at 3:30 and she needs to be able to pick them up.  Patient arrives at 1:15, expects the appointment to last until maybe 2:30 or 3:00 and then leaves to pick up the kids.

What frequently happens is that 2:00 rolls around and the patient is not yet seen.  At 2:30 patient gets anxious and starts complaining.  Patient is then brought back and at 3:00 still hasn’t been seen.  The patient is then in a conundrum where the patient wants to be seen but still must pick up the kids and now it might be late to make alternative plans.

What could have been done about this?  Clearly communicate with the patient at the outset and leave the patient some options.  Patient arrives at 1:15 for a 1:30 appointment?  First thing is at 1:30, that patient is called by a staffer.  At that point the staffer explains the situation.  For example, “Dr. Jones is running behind by approximately an hour.  You will not be seen before 2:30, and more than likely around 3:00.  We apologize, but he had some bad news to deliver to a patient and her family this morning, and it took longer for him to speak with them than expected.  You can keep the appointment, but if there are things you wish to do we will not call you before 2:30.  You can make arrangements if this is later than you expected.  Or you can reschedule.”

It is that simple.  The patient is informed of the situation.  The patient can leave and come back. The patient can call a friend or even the school and can make arrangements for school pick up.  The patient can reschedule, but the patient will be more likely to be grateful because the patient is informed and in control of the options early.

Recognizing that the patient’s time is valuable goes very far.  It can clear out a stuffy and busy waiting room.  Patients can more effectively budget their time.  And the physician or other practitioner has a patient that is not nearly so frustrated.  When a physician doesn’t have to listen to a patient vent, that is a couple of minutes saved right there.

Tell the patients what to expect upon arrival.  It makes them happy.  And this will make you, the doctor, happy as well.

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