Waiting is frustrating. It is especially frustrating in healthcare, where patients may be squeezing appointments into busy schedules or dealing with unexpected health concerns. Healthcare organizations are well aware that waiting is a pain point. Indeed, wait times are a huge dissatisfier for both patients and people working on the front line of healthcare.

Of course, some waits are necessary and value-added. For example, waiting is necessary when staff members clean and sanitize exam rooms. Waiting is necessary when providers give thoughtful consideration to test results. But not all waiting is value-added - organizations that are working to eliminate non-value-added (i.e., wasted) time to the extent possible have made this a major focus of performance-improvement initiatives.

Patient perceptions of wait times

NRC Health conducted a national Market Insights study to better understand the full impact of wait times in healthcare. More than 2,000 patients shared their perspectives on acceptable wait times, how people feel if wait times go beyond acceptable, what makes long waits worth it, and what care providers can do to mitigate frustration with long waits.

For this study, wait time was defined as "the amount of time between when you arrive and when you are seen by a Provider who can address the reason for your visit." Willingness to wait differs with visit type:

Virtual Visit - 20 minutes

Scheduled Appointment - 30 minutes

Unplanned Visit - 45 minutes

Interacting with healthcare providers is emotional. Indeed, patients often come to healthcare situations feeling a range of emotions, ranging from anticipation to fear and uncertainty. Waiting longer than expected heightens the emotional context of healthcare. As wait times increase, patients feel anxious and annoyed. Waiting an hour or more is the emotional breaking point - many patients report feeling angry and unforgiving. This damages relationships with care teams and health organizations. Patients lose confidence and feel disrespected if their time is not valued. While service recovery is possible, starting off on the right foot is better.

In today's consumer-driven economy, healthcare consumers or patients have high expectations for service and quality. They are influenced by companies like Amazon, Lyft, and Instacart, which deliver basic needs more quickly than ever before. Furthermore, people have many choices for healthcare and are not afraid to exercise those choices. Waiting puts care providers at risk of losing patients to competitors.

Bottom Line

It is important to distinguish between value-added waits and non-value-added waits. Value-added waits are necessary to deliver high-quality care and service. Non-value-added waits contribute to anxiety and cause frustration and anger, particularly if they extend to an hour or more. Of course, in addition to doing what you can to identify and address non-value-added waiting time, it helps to communicate reasons for value-added waits to appropriately manage expectations.

In our Market Insights study, patients expressed that updates on waiting time, meaningful time with care providers, and comfort of the waiting areas all mitigate frustration with waiting. The Experience feedback highlights additional underlying factors such as communication about care processes and attention to pain control that, if addressed, can shift perceptions in a positive direction. All of these are actionable and controllable and are likely at least as important as reducing the wait itself.

Long waits are often symptoms of bigger problems such as broken processes and lack of teamwork. These are dissatisfiers to patients, families, and people working on the front line. Devising strategies to address long waits must include the entire care team, including front-desk staff. Those closest to the work often have the best sense of core problems, see the workarounds, and have ideas of how to improve processes. Asking for their ideas leads to more ownership and accountability for solutions.

To read more about how long wait times can negatively affect your clinic, checkout this article.

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