Benjamin Franklin first wrote the aphorism, “time is money” in an essay published in 1748, and over 250 years later, it remains true. Consumers have a finite amount of time that they can spend every day working, exercising, or caring for loved ones. Seeking care can already be a daunting task for patients for a myriad of reasons. Lack of convenient, same day care on top of the normal stressors and patients now see insurmountable barriers to seeking care.
Consumers elect to schedule ahead of time to reduce wait times with companies like OpenTable for restaurants and Uber for ride sharing.With one tap, consumers know how long they will wait for their ride to arrive. Of course, traffic happens, there is construction on Main Street that couldn’t be avoided, or the driver gets lost. As pick-up time fluctuates, the consumer is notified on their phone in real time, which decreases consumer frustration and adjusts expectations on the recalculated pick-up time. While wait time is increasing for the consumer, they still have a favorable view of the rideshare app and their driver because the real-time update and are not waiting on a street corner with no idea what is happening that is contributing to their wait or if they’ll ever be picked up.
Time is a valuable commodity, and Harvard Medical School led a study that calculated that it costs patients $43 in lost time for each medical visit, which is more than the average out-of-pocket cost for the visit itself. A typical visit to a doctor is 121 minutes of the patient’s time (factoring in 37 minutes of travel back and forth, 64 minutes waiting for care, completing intake paperwork, and 20 minutes face-to-face time with the physician). How can healthcare operators reduce patient wait times and improve the patient experience when patient volumes are at an all-time high?
Provide online appointment availability to reduce patient wait time
In a study looking at call centers conducted by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University, found that providing wait-time estimates led to lower average wait times for all consumers. Every time a consumer elects to be seen at another time with a shorter wait, everyone else in line will also experience a shorter wait time.
For urgent cares and doctor’s offices that display their schedule online, patients should be able to review the dates and times that are available vs booked times, and review the number of patients currently in line. This will help patients to make the decision of whether they would like to drive to the care facility and be added to the queue, or “load balance” and select date or time during the day at a non-peak time to schedule a visit and have their spot reserved to experience less time away from home. Giving patients visibility into peak and non-peak times to schedule a visit inadvertently helps walk-in patients who cannot wait to receive care and are not able to receive care at a later time.
Allow patients to complete registration paperwork prior to their arrival
Walk-in patients may not have considered seeking care even 10 minutes prior to entering your doors. For these patients, streamline registration by offering a contactless registration workflow where they can complete their demographic paperwork, upload their insurance card and photo ID, and sign their consent forms all from their mobile phone so they’re not barraged with paperwork accompanied with shared pens and clipboards immediately upon their arrival, and they can then be added to the virtual queue and track their spot in line to see the number of patients waiting ahead of them. A virtual waitlist greatly decreases disgruntled patients bothering the front desk and constantly requesting an update asking when they’ll be seen and for the number of patients ahead of them in line.
For patients who book ahead, make sure that they can easily access digital registration paperwork as well right after their visit is confirmed. We do not recommend requiring paperwork in order to schedule a visit because it is a barrier to a patient scheduling, and there is an option for paperwork to be completed upon arrival.
As most patients who book ahead do upload their ID card, insurance information, and consent forms prior to their arrival for their visit, the front office staff can take advantage of this information and verify insurance eligibility, check benefits, confirm the patient is registered in the EHR, and save time for the patient upon their arrival so that they experience a shorter wait time and are seen at the time they were scheduled.
Share conservative wait time estimates that are more favorable than aggressive ones
In the same call center study mentioned previously, wait times from having calls answered sooner than expected had a small positive impact on the customer experience, but waits that were longer than expected to have the call answered had a significant negative impact, and the penalty for under-delivery was seven times larger than the reward for over-delivery.
This can mean that patients who wait longer to be seen by a provider are far more likely to leave a negative review for your facility on social sites for other patients to review, share this negative experience with family, friends, and online forums, as well as not patronize the facility in the future.
All online booking and queueing systems should allow your facility to have the autonomy to select hours that you’re available and control the frequency of patient bookings available at any time throughout the day. As operators, it is vital to ensure that the appointment availability is realistic; however, and that you’re not providing an excess of appointment availability every day to attract patients but in reality, there is not enough staff of providers to see all of those patients, which would be an incredibly poor patient experience.
Finding a balance of providing enough appointment availability to attract patients so that they’re able to schedule at a time that works for them, while also being slightly conservative to ensure that patients booking an appointment will be seen at that appointment time, or perhaps slightly earlier will allow them to be pleasantly surprised when their wait is faster than expected and significantly positively impact their overall experience and likely even on the care that they received.
Update patients with when wait times change
Taking real-time updates to increase patient satisfaction when wait times are longer than a patient expects can be applied to medical settings as well. In a Solv consumer survey, we found that 70% of respondents shared they’d prefer a confirmed appointment time over waiting in line as a walk-in patient. By providing patients the ability to book a visit ahead of time, patients can comfortably wait at home for their visit and then arrive closer to their appointment time to avoid crowding a waiting room. Allowing patients to schedule ahead of time and then honoring that appointment time makes patients feel like their time is valued, and they didn’t need to spend more time than necessary away from their work or family.
In the Uber example previously shared, consumers are experiencing a longer wait but have a favorable experience because there are consistent updates. Similarly, wait times given upon arrival that are not adjusted and communicated in real time lead to a negative patient experience. When patients arrive at your facility, they have committed to being seen by your providers. However, if the wait is too long and they don’t feel like they are receiving communication about the reason for a long wait time, they will seek care elsewhere. This is especially something we’ve seen throughout a busy cold and flu season when volumes are high and patience is low.
To facilitate the constant communication flow between patients and the front desk staff to communicate issues that may affect wait time, Solv has a two way SMS communication system where canned and/or free response messages can be shared with patients to facilitate individual and mass communication in real time.
Especially now when patients are trepidatious to even enter a waiting room, many are electing to stay in their car, or stand outside to wait for their turn. In order to let the patient know that they are next, the front desk staff can send an SMS message to the patient to inform them when it’s their opportunity to enter the waiting room to be escorted to an exam room to have a consultation with a provider.
Following the visit after the test results have returned, the SMS messages can also be used to send the patient a message to ask them to call the office so that a nurse can share test results for services like flu tests, COVID-19 tests, strep tests and more. Remember that SMS messages are not HIPAA secure, so we recommend that SMS messages do not contain the results of the test, but rather alert the patient that the results are in and they can call to discuss their results.
Understand that patients who have longer wait times than they expected will take longer in the exam room
In another study, researchers found that wait time not only impacts patient behavior while waiting for their turn, but also their behavior once it is their turn to be seen by a provider. This may be because patients who are forced to wait longer than expected spend more time complaining, or feel the need to ask more questions to the Medical Assistant or provider not because they are genuine concerns, but rather to justify the extra time that they spent waiting for their visit.
This suggests that providing patients with wait times that are more conservative can help your facility serve patients faster and increase the number of patients seen every day. Also importantly, these happy patients will leave the visit feeling that their time was respected and they are more likely to speak favorably of the provider and the facility, leave a positive review, and be a repeat patient.
In order to make real improvement to practice operations, it’s very important to have a clear understanding of the current wait times for your patients. This will improve your ability to estimate future wait times - whether or not you choose to share wait times with your patients or not. It does help to understand busier times and operational bottlenecks based on the staff working at the time. Solv reporting metrics helped some of our partners identify tha their long wait time on certain days of the week was attributed to a seasoned provider who was spending an hour with each patient!
Remember to keep the patient experience at the forefront of the clinic workflow. Patients often have choices when it comes to convenient care solutions both in-person and virtually, so it is worth the extra time to map out your patient journey from the time of their arrival until the time they are discharged and consider whether every step is optimized for efficiency.