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Waiting. It evokes various types of feelings, from hope all the way to uncertainty. Biding time for a scheduled vacation is typically positive anticipation. Waiting for your turn at the DMV often has a negative connotation. 

For healthcare providers, wait time is a key quality metric in a number of national patient experience surveys. For patients, though, it’s commonly a source of frustration. A large survey conducted just a couple years ago found that 97 percent of respondents were frustrated by wait times at the doctor’s office. 

Some waits are unavoidable. Most patients understand that. When it becomes habitual, though, many individuals see it as poor practice management. 

It’s no surprise that wait times affect overall satisfaction with healthcare providers. There’s even research that shows that patients use average appointment wait times as a deciding factor in choosing a new clinician. 

What’s the Wait? 

How long are patients waiting on average? The biggest and most recent study on the issue has that number at 18 minutes and 13 seconds. According to the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), median patient total wait times — including time spent in the waiting area as well as in the exam room waiting to see a provider — range from 20-25 minutes. Twenty-five to 30 minutes might not sound like too bad of a wait time until you consider that most physicians spend less than that with each patient. 

In-office wait time isn’t the only problem. Recent data shows that it takes an average of 20.6 days for a patient to get an appointment with a family physician, even longer for specialists. For primary care, the average time to the third next available (TNA) appointment is 16 days for new patients and 12 days for established ones. Patients in other countries often have similar or shorter wait times, even those with universal healthcare. 

What’s the Harm? 

How much harm can a few extra minutes of waiting actually do to a medical group? More than you might think. 

Up to 30 percent of patients have left a physician’s office before being seen because of the wait time, and almost that many would consider changing providers over long waits. Some seek care at alternative healthcare facilities, such as urgent care and retail health clinics. 

Remember those patient experience surveys we mentioned at the beginning of this blog? The average wait time for five-star hospitals is about 13 minutes, but it’s just over 34 minutes in one-star hospitals. Physician offices with longer wait times tend to receive lower patient satisfaction scores. 

Lengthy wait times also can cost you through canceled appointments or no-shows and a negative reputation fostered by unhappy patients. The result? Low patient retention

Patient wait times don’t only affect patient satisfaction. Some patients who have to wait too long to see their provider may experience worsening health, thereby increasing healthcare costs through an added level of complexity of care. 

What’s the Solution? 

You already know that lengthy wait times equal dissatisfied patients. This is a fixable problem, though. It simply takes some strategy, communication and the use of specific technology tools. 

Some practices focus on making their physical office environment more comfortable for waiting patients, using a television screen and some magazines as temporary diversions. Others enforce a late arrivals policy, so other patients don’t pay for an individual’s tardiness in the form of additional waiting. When possible, appointment grouping — i.e., scheduling physicals or AWVs back-to-back – can also be utilized as a solution to minimize longer patient wait times. 

To give you further direction on how to reduce wait times within your medical group, we’ve compiled a list of five surefire strategies.

1. Concentrate on Communication.

Transparency about wait times can go a long way in tempering patients’ expectations. In fact, research has shown that 80 percent of patients would be less frustrated if they knew how long the wait would be. 

If possible, give patients an estimate of their wait to see the doctor. Or, call or text them ahead of time to let them know of a lengthy delay. Proactively manage patient complaints to avoid those individuals giving your practice negative reviews – both to family and friends and online. 

2. Focus on Patient Flow.

Often used interchangeably with the term “patient volume” because of the many similarities, patient flow represents the ability of the healthcare system to serve patients quickly and efficiently as they move through stages of care. It’s a critical component of process management in hospitals and other healthcare facilities and is central to patient experience, clinical safety and health outcomes. 

Poor flow leads to delays in treatment and crowding and has been identified as a barrier to the provision of quality care. Inefficiencies in patient flow can be measured through patient flow analysis (PFA), which uses actionable data and pre-defined metrics and should be performed routinely. 

3. Seek the Help of Supporting Staff.

Most doctors have more medical training than their physician assistant and nurse practitioner counterparts. Engaging these non-physician clinicians, though, when appropriate, can help lessen the patient load. Patients don’t seem to mind, either — more than 40 percent of patients would be willing to see another doctor in the practice to reduce their wait. 

Employing the assistance of other practice staff members is especially a good idea for performing changeover processes. This includes tasks that need to be completed as the physician moves from one patient to the next. An example?  Readying the chart for the next patient and moving patients in and out of the exam room. 

4. Consider Open Access Appointment Scheduling.

Also referred to as same-day scheduling, this method leaves about half the workday open for patients to receive an appointment slot the day they call the office. The rest of the day consists of pre-booked, clinically-necessary follow-up visits and slots for patients who scheduled an appointment prior to that day. In one prominent case, researchers from Kaiser Permanente found that open access scheduling reduced their appointment wait times from 55 days to only one. 

5. Rely on Patient-friendly Technology Resources.

The registration process can cause marked delays, especially in practices that use traditional paper processes and/or outdated technology. By giving patients the tools, though, to check-in online, it gives them more control — an essential tenet of healthcare consumerism — and allows them to complete the task on their own time, when it’s convenient for them. 

In addition to reducing time spent at the office, streamlining the patient intake process through digital health tools frees up practice staff to focus on other mission-critical tasks. Patients also can verify the accuracy of pre-registration materials — health insurance status, medical conditions, family history prescription list — and update them as necessary, eliminating the time-consuming and repetitive process of filling out forms. 

With the right digital health tools, patients also have the option to find a provider, schedule an appointment, participate in a telehealth visit and submit funds for a copay or outstanding balance. Those online payments benefit medical groups by improving their cash collections and overall revenue cycle.

Epion Digital Check-In enables healthcare providers, from solo physician practices to large health systems, to offer their patients a seamless self-service experience from start to finish. That means less time in the waiting room and a higher level of satisfaction. Schedule a meeting with us to find out more!