seats in waiting room

As a clinician, there’s a constant battle to keep and stay on schedule with your daily appointments.

A few minutes of delay for one patient can quickly cascade into 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour wait for patients later in the day — even if they arrive early or on time.

Of course, this is troubling for your practice. But it can also wreak havoc for your patients — who likely have taken off time from work to come in — and ruin their entire experience.

man pointing at a watchStudies have found that patient wait times have a huge impact on overall patient satisfaction. In fact:

Patients who have to wait 20 minutes are 8% less likely to report their satisfaction at the highest level vs. patients who only waited 10 minutes. Those who wait 40 minutes are 18% less likely. (source)

Even more troubling, patients with longer wait times also rate their quality of care lower.

This means that long wait times for patients isn’t just a minor inconvenience. It actually lowers their perception of the care that they receive and can erode confidence in your practice, which they may actively share with friends and family or post publicly. This should be a major concern for all healthcare clinicians.

So, how do you deal with patient wait times — which are sometimes inevitable — and keep satisfaction ratings high?

Luckily, it may be simpler than you expect.

It turns out that in many scenarios, there are relatively simple steps your practice can take to both combat late arrivals and no-shows, as well as mitigate the risk of wait times for the patients who do arrive on time.

Let’s unpack some of the underlying causes of patient wait times and see how we can actively manage the situation to reduce frustration and improve practice operations.

Why patient waits occur

In order to defuse problems caused by long patient wait times, we should first understand how wait times occur, what causes them, and what the experience is like for the patient.

Patient wait times are generally caused either directly or indirectly by one of four different scenarios:

  1. Patients accidentally arrive late, creating a delay.
  2. Patients expect the provider to be running late and arrive late intentionally.
  3. Patients arrive on time, but the provider is running behind because previous patients did not arrive on time.
  4. Patients arrive on time, but the provider is running behind because previous patient appointments took longer than expected.

Each of these creates issues, but they can be addressed. In many cases, better communication between the patient and the provider’s office is all it takes to reframe the scenario and eliminate any negative effects by wait times.

Manage patient expectations

If there’s one thing that adds to the pain of having to wait to be seen, it’s not knowing how long you will have to wait. Patients sitting in the waiting room have no idea if they’ll be there for 10 minutes or an hour — and many practices simply fail to communicate expectations to them.

This is a huge opportunity for clinics to both mitigate the effects of wait times and improve the likelihood of patients arriving on time.

Long patient wait times often dramatically increase frustration.

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As a provider, you can provide notice to patients about extended wait times or if the clinician is running behind and will be late to see them. Using a service like Apptoto, this is a simple process that takes just a few moments but can save your patients the frustration of arriving on time and being forced to wait.

Establish a record of meeting expectations

In many cases, patients arrive late to their appointment because they expect that the provider will be late. And that’s often caused by past experiences with long wait times. So, wait times often encourage late arrivals, which creates further delays — a recurring cycle.

If a return visitor is used to your practice running 10 or 15 minutes behind, then they’re much more likely to assume that will be the case in the future, meaning they’ll likely show up late, expecting to have to wait anyway. Obviously, this is the kind of behavior you want to curb, not encourage.

It’s critical for your practice to build a track record of accurately estimating and communicating the wait time or appointment time to each patient.

This step alone can help establish credibility with your patients and acknowledge that you respect their time, in which case they are more likely to respect your time as well.

Provide clear reminders with pertinent information

Although it’s difficult to combat patients who accidentally show up late to appointments, having automated reminders and providing pertinent information can help reduce their likelihood.

In this case, pertinent information would be directions to the office from a major intersection, parking information, or details about the office’s location within the building. While it’s common for providers to remind patients about their visit, they often forget to provide this level of detail. Getting lost or confused about how to get to the office or where to park can make patients late, even if just by a few minutes.

Avoiding these small delays can have a profound impact on the day’s schedule over the course of several appointments and may be able to dramatically reduce wait times for other patients, particularly toward the end of the day.

Highlight your practice’s best days

Patients and clinicians alike often focus on the times when waits are especially bad, but they forget the times when wait times are average or even nonexistent.

Your practice can take proactive steps to improve patient satisfaction by addressing this head-on and highlighting wait times — when they’re short — as a feature, rather than a bug.

If your practice is running especially smoothly, you may want to emphasize that to patients by letting them know that things are running on time or that waits are very short. This can reinforce your relationship and may foster greater loyalty and improve overall customer satisfaction.

People value shorter patient wait times so much they would often be willing to see a different, more timely provider.

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So, it would follow with this logic that patients would be less likely to shop around — and feel more satisfied with the level of service — if they were reminded of the short wait times they are experiencing as compared with other providers or as a general benchmark.

Identify your own unique problems

Ultimately, each practice is unique and will have its own trouble points that cause delays.

If none of these approaches remedy long patient wait times or address the underlying problems that occur, then it may be wise to study your patient experience more closely.

In many cases, a specific bottleneck or point of confusion may be causing the majority of your troubles with patient waits. To address this, you can perform both a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the entire patient experience, from the time of booking to the end of their appointment, to uncover insights about what’s causing these delays.

You may also want to use patient surveys to get a better understanding of their experience as they see it, which may present some opportunities to improve the experience even in the case of long wait times (does your practice provide free Wi-Fi in the waiting room?)

Start this process by addressing simple and obvious problems, then increase your efforts if problems persist.

In the end, it’ll pay off in the form of a better experience for patients and higher ratings — and more referrals — for your practice.