No one likes to be kept waiting, especially not in the doctor’s office. We all know that many delays sometimes cannot be helped, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to reduce patient wait times and to help your patients stay productive, entertained and comfortable when waiting is unavoidable.
Let your receptionist do her job
Your primary objective should be to make wait time as short as possible. One way to do that is by keeping your receptionist on task - attending to patients as soon as they come through the door, rather than being tied up with other responsibilities.
“We have routed incoming phone calls to key personnel in the office to reduce this aspect of the workload for the receptionists, thereby freeing them up to concentrate on the patients at their desk,” says Scott Glaser, M.D., a physician with Pain Specialists of Greater Chicago in Burr Ridge, Ill., and a board member of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians. “We have also moved one of our schedulers to a location in proximity to the exam rooms to facilitate scheduling of future procedures and consultations. This has reduced the number of patients at the front desk, improved patient flow and reduced waiting times.”
Schedulers should call or email patients to remind them of their appointments, and make sure you block out enough time for each appointment. “We have a very effective scheduling system and work to prevent patients from waiting more than three to five minutes,” says Randy R. Geller, DDS, director of dentistry at The Geller Dental Group in Bellmore, N.Y.
Keep patients informed
Even worse than being kept waiting is not knowing why or how long the wait will be. Patients read this as disrespectful of their time, and it’s one of their top complaints about doctors.
Experts say never hide the fact that you’re running behind. If possible, call patients ahead of time and let them know their appointment will be delayed. Tell them the reason (briefly) and apologize, then give them the option of arriving later or rescheduling.
“By doing so, you let them know that you respect their time in hopes they will respect yours by being prompt for their appointment(s),” says Douglas Won, M.D., co-founder of the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute and a board-certified and fellowship-trained spine surgeon in Irving, Texas.
If the patient has already arrived, inform them of the impending delay immediately. “If we are running slightly behind, we put a sign up indicating how far we’re behind, and if patients want to run and grab a cup of coffee or do something locally and come back in 15 minutes or so, they’re more than welcome to do that,” says Charles E. Crutchfield III, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with Crutchfield Dermatology in Eagan, Minn., and clinical associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Once the patient is in the exam room, knock and poke your head in to let them know you’ll be with them in just a few minutes. Even this small gesture does a world of good in relieving anxiety and frustration. Ask if you can do anything to make them more comfortable while they wait – few positions are more uncomfortable than sitting on an exam table in a paper gown waiting for the doctor to arrive.
Electronic medical records make for easy access of patient information by the medical staff, further reducing wait time, and electronic prescriptions also facilitate patient flow. Putting forms online for patients to fill out before arriving for their appointment is another time-saver. You may wish to install kiosks that patients can use to get their information into the system if they don’t have Internet access at home.
Another useful digital tool is an online system like MedWaitTime, which patients can access via their computer or cell phone to determine if you’re behind schedule. “The system will tell them how we are running, the reason for the delay and how many minutes they can come in late, if any,” says Vishal Mehta, M.D., a sports medicine surgeon in Geneva, Ill.
In addition, direct patients to your website for information about your practice’s scope, the symptoms and diagnoses you treat, the procedures and other interventions you perform, as well as your credentials and experience, Glaser recommends. Patients will inform themselves in the comfort of their home, and this will limit the amount of time you and your staff spend answering basic questions about what you do.
Also, consider offering your patients free Wi-Fi and even the use of an office PC in your reception area (see MOT’s story on Wi-Fi).
Make waiting areas inviting
When waiting is unavoidable, at least you can make your office pleasing to the eye and the senses.
In addition to a clean, well-kept reception area with an updated design theme, stock current issues of popular magazines in both the reception area and the exam and procedure rooms. A widescreen TV may be a welcome addition, as is soft, soothing music – jazz, New Age or light pop are good choices. If you can afford it, a plasma display with closed-caption news headlines, weather updates, before-and-after pictures of patients you’ve treated (if appropriate), and staff photos is both entertaining and calming, says Crutchfield.
You may also want to offer patients an online or print survey asking what would make the wait more pleasant for them. (See MOT’s story on determing how your patients feel about your practice)
Finally, make sure your staff is friendly and understanding toward patients when there are delays, reminds Geller. Train them in how to deal with frustrations so that patients feel heard and cared for even when being asked to wait.