Patient Wait Times

Patient Wait Times: How to Ease Frustration

Ninety-seven percent of patients are frustrated by wait times.

This frightening statistic was discovered in a survey administered by Software Advice, an Austin, Texas-based software consultation group. This same study indicates that “Average wait times in a primary care office are on the rise.” All-in-all, these statements indicate that we are not being as successful as we would like in managing our practices. If you define a successful practice primarily by patient satisfaction, paying attention to what goes on in your waiting room and reducing patient wait times are critical to the overall success of your practice.

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Can You Reduce Patient Wait Times?

The first step is to define what is causing your patients to have to wait, so you can improve your front-office systems. Although you can’t control when patients decide to get sick and come to your office all at once, there are things you can control.

You can schedule routine visits on days and times that you know are slow and leave certain appointment times open for patients who need to be seen urgently. You can define and communicate your scheduling guidelines. For example, how will emergency requests be handled? Will you come in early and stay late if a patient demands it? Everyone on your team should  understand, precisely, your scheduling goals and guidelines.

You can make sure that one late patient doesn’t hold up the show for everyone that follows. An automated appointment-reminder system can help by sending out error-free reminders consistently, even on weekends. Patient incentive programs can help too. One medical office gives patients a coupon good for $25 off their office visit not just for showing up, but for showing up on time.

Use days with heavy waiting times, to help you determine what is causing delays in your office and come up with creative ideas to improve this problem. That said, it is difficult to reduce patient wait times—that’s why it’s such a universal problem. Variables such as the need for certain rooms or certain equipment for particular appointments complicate scheduling. Plus, medical emergencies, can cause real delays, and patients will have to wait… sometimes for a long time.

So what can you do? How do other industries handle this?


How many times have you been at the airport only to find out that your flight has been delayed? How many times have you waited forever just to find out when your flight would depart? Frustrated? What was causing your frustration? When that gate agent finally came over the intercom to tell you the status of your flight, you immediately started to feel better. Not knowing how long you would be waiting probably made you more uncomfortable than you realized.

You need to understand that your patients are in that same predicament. Not only do they need to wait, but they are uncomfortable because they don’t know for how long. They start to worry. The parent is wondering if he’s going to be able to pick up his child from school on time. The senior is worried about having to drive home in the dark. All this concern could be alleviated with just a few words from your staff, giving them some waiting time updates, and giving them the opportunity to reschedule the appointment if they need to. Just like in our airline example, more communication can reduce patient frustration.

Make it Comfortable

Imagine this: you’re waiting for your medical appointment in a dark waiting-room, on an uncomfortable chair. You’ve run out of 3-year-old magazines to read. A bored child is getting fussy. You’re thirsty. You’ve been there forever. You think: “Why is the receptionist looking angry? HOW LONG IS THIS GOING TO TAKE?”

Is this what your patients are experiencing too? You may not be able to control waiting times, but you can make the experience more comfortable. Here are some relatively easy ideas :

  • Provide comfortable seating
  • Provide decent lighting
  • Provide lots of magazines for both genders and different age groups.
  • Provide a TV with cartoons
  • Provide water
  • Provide clear access to a bathroom
  • Provide information on waiting times
  • Provide caring staff

The last bullet is arguably the most important one and something you and your team can work on right away. When patients get restless, the front office staff tends to withdraw to avoid confrontation. This is a natural reflex. They bury their noses in their work and avoid eye contact. This creates an awkward, sometimes hostile silence which makes the wait even worse. The patient is not only stressed, but made to feel like a nuisance.

Train your front office staff to take care of waiting-room patients, it is their job, ESPECIALLY when there are long patient wait times. No matter how busy they are, if there is a long wait, they need to make the waiting-room patients their priority. Remind them that the patients in front of them are always more important than the patients on the phone. If they say they are too busy, remind them that they should never be too busy to make a patient feel better. A smile, some small talk, a glass of water and waiting-time status updates are simple things that they can start providing today.

Communication and Teamwork

Although there are a variety of factors that influence your front office operations, effective communications and teamwork can go a long way toward ensuring that your front office is delivering a high-quality experience to your patients. Even better, when a problem arises—and they will—with a well thought-out plan you will be able to respond and resolve the situation with minimal disruption. However you choose to improve your waiting-room, you and your patients will be glad you took the time and energy to invest in patient satisfaction.

Don’t forget to check out our instant patient reminder demo!