Practices Must Reduce Patient Wait Times—Here’s How

Nearly two out of five patients are frustrated with their doctor before their check-up even begins. Why are so many people starting off on the wrong foot?

Well, the average patient wait time is around 20 minutes for practices across the country—and that just won’t fly for a large portion of patients we surveyed.

How Long It Takes for Patients to Feel Wait Time Frustration
wait time frustration
How Long It Takes for Patients to Feel Wait Time Frustration
wait time frustration chart

Your practice needs to address these wait time frustrations because they’re hurting your ability to retain, attract and satisfy patients.

In this research report, we’ll show you data that supports this claim, plus provide actionable advice and tech tools to help you keep patient scheduling on track.

We ran two separate studies to tackle the complex issue of patient wait times:

wait time survey

Key Findings:

  • A combined 53 percent of physicians say patients at their practice routinely wait more than 20 minutes. Twenty-five percent say “daily” and 28 percent say “at least once a week.
  • A combined 63 percent of physicians believe wait times have “no impact” or “minimal impact” on their ability to retain patients.
  • The top three consequences patients cite for long wait times are: leaving the practice without seeing the doctor (23 percent), advising friends/family not to become a patient at that practice (22 percent) and switching to a new doctor (19 percent).
  • Sixty-four percent of physicians say patient arrival times (e.g., patients arriving later than their scheduled appointment time) are usually the biggest reason they run behind schedule.
  • Eighty-six percent of patients say being told in advance what the wait time will be could help reduce frustration.

We partnered with physician-only social media network SERMO to run the physician survey used in this report. We also interviewed SERMO CEO Peter Kirk to share his expert analysis on our findings.

“It is important that doctors understand how much of an impact wait times have on patients, and on the bottom line of their practices.”

Peter Kirk, SERMO CEO

Wait Times Are Like Circus Acts (No, Really)

Circuses often feature risky balancing acts. So do medical practices—in the form of wait times.

Here’s the balancing act for physicians: Schedule enough patients per day to cover practice costs, but try not overbook the agenda. This is tougher than it sounds, considering health care providers must account for last-minute cancellations and no-shows.

Author Clint Hughes explains that a practice with just four missed appointments per day loses an estimated $144,000 per year. And according to the Medical Group Management Association, no-show rates can range anywhere from 3 to 80 percent of a practice’s total patient interactions.

It’s certainly understandable for practices to schedule as many patients as they can to mitigate the financial losses from missed appointments.

However, it’s also important to ensure wait times aren’t routinely long, because practices run the risk of upsetting the scheduling balance and causing patient satisfaction rates to crash.

In our physician survey, we asked respondents how often a patient at their practice encounters a wait time that is longer than 20 minutes for a scheduled appointment. Twenty-five percent say “daily” and 28 percent say “at least once a week”.

How Often Patients Encounter 20+ Min. Wait Times
20 minute wait times
Percent of Physicians Who Have Heard Patient Wait Time Complaints
physicians wait time complaints

Given this finding, we weren’t surprised to learn that 61 percent of physicians have heard negative feedback from patients about wait times at their practice.

Why You Can’t Afford to Have Long Wait Times

One reason the issue of lengthy wait times is still so prevalent is that many physicians don’t see it as an issue at all.

When asked how big of an impact they think patient wait times have on their practice’s ability to retain patients, 12 percent of physicians claimed “no impact at all” and 51 percent predicted a “minimal impact.”

Physician Perception of Wait Times’ Impact on Patient Retention
 

perception wait time impact
That perception is contradicted by the results of our patient survey, which indicate that wait times do have an influence on whether people are loyal to a practice.

Here’s what we found when we asked patients how they’ve behaved after experiencing long wait times at a doctor’s office:

Common Consequences of Long Wait Times
wait time consequences
Twenty-three percent of patients say they’ve literally walked out of a waiting room, choosing to reschedule or even cancel rather than wait any longer.

How about that: Practices overbook patients to mitigate the effects of missed appointments, but the resulting long wait times can actually cause missed appointments.

Moreover, a patient’s negative experience with practice wait times has a ripple effect that extends from close friends and family to strangers on the Internet. Twenty-two percent of patients have discouraged loved ones from seeing a certain doctor and seven percent have left critical comments on online reviews sites specifically because of wait times.

Kirk says both practices and patients could be more sensitive to the causes and effects of wait times to avoid misconceptions.

“It seems that doctors may not completely appreciate how important punctuality is to patients, and that patients may not completely appreciate the challenges of scheduling in the practice of real-world medicine.”

Long Wait Times Are the Symptom. What’s the Disease?

We wanted to dig deeper into the scheduling challenges physicians face so we could better understand the root causes. We asked physicians to select all the factors that contribute to longer-than-average wait times at their practice.

It turns out patients themselves are behind the top two causes: Sixty-four percent of doctors cited patient arrival times (e.g., patients arriving later than their scheduled appointment time) and 61 percent cited unexpected patient issues (e.g., encounters requiring unique or additional documentation/treatment).

Physicians’ Contributing Factors to Long Wait Times
 

wait time contributing factors

Kirk says some people may find this surprising. “While patients are probably familiar with the idea that medical emergencies can cause wait times, they may be thinking less about how practices are run or how other patients impact doctor workflow,” he says.

“Other patients who arrive late can cause delays, as can patients who book a short appointment but, when in the exam room, seek to address a multitude of issues.”

How to reduce patient-related delays:

  • Leverage software to send multiple appointment reminders. You can automate these reminders to be sent via text message, email and/or phone call leading up to the appointment time. (Compare hundreds of systems within your budget here.)
  • Create, communicate and enforce a late arrivals policy. In one Massachussetts-based practice, patients receive warning letters the first three times they’re more than 5 minutes late. By the fourth offense, they’re asked to find another provider.
  • Try to anticipate whether you’ll need to spend more time than usual on a particular visit. Ask patients to pre-fill paperwork ahead of their visit to determine whether their symptoms appear to require additional attention. (The American Medical Association has a great guide on implementing patient pre-registration processes here.)

It’s noteworthy that 25 percent of physicians told us “technical difficulties” impact wait times. This includes glitches with their medical software and/or delays in digitally documenting health information. EMR usability is a common complaint among doctors, including one of our survey respondents, who writes:

“I was pretty much on time for 38 out of 40 years of my career. When my multispecialty group went to EMR, that all changed for the worse. EMR slowed me down horribly and patients had to wait while I filled in all the useless checkmarks.” – Survey respondent in Pediatrics

How to reduce software-related delays:

  • Identify and troubleshoot bottlenecks in your software usage. Your tech should be making your practice more efficient, not less efficient. Replace time-consuming applications with new, time-saving ones. We have a full guide to help you overcome common EMR challenges here.

Two out of ten doctors say they experience staffing challenges that influence wait times. Some respondents tell us their employees are “slow” or “not performing at the [right] level” while others say their practice is simply understaffed.

How to reduce staff-related delays:

  • Hire staff to improve wait times—even if it’s just part-time—because it could actually save you money in the long run. Long wait times are costing you patients in the form of cancelled appointments and negative word-of-mouth.
  • Improve employee motivation and efficiency with some popular strategies. These include team-building exercises/events, regularly holding performance reviews and rewarding high-achievers with bonuses or gift cards.

Finally, eight percent of survey respondents cited “other” factors that cause appointment delays. These include examples such as teaching medical students and waiting for interpreter services.

Potential Cures for Wait Time Frustration

Even if you implement all the advice above, you’re bound to run late once in awhile. As we’ve explained, the balance between smooth scheduling and overbooking is delicate.

“All practices are different and face their own challenges, so we would counsel doctors who are struggling with this balance to implement a more formal and quantified way of gathering information about their practice’s wait times, and use that data to make incremental improvements,” says Kirk.

To that end, we asked our physician survey respondents whether they’d ever monitored patient wait times at their practice. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) have—43 percent do so “informally” and 31 percent monitor wait times through a “structured process”.

Percent of Physicians Monitoring Patient Wait Times
 

wait time monitoring
It is encouraging to see that so many physicians are already keeping an eye on wait times, though it appears there’s still work to be done leveraging that data to drive improvements. If you’re among the group of doctors who informally monitor wait times or don’t do so at all, here are some good ways to gather that information:

  • Invest in dedicated tracking technology. Vendors such as PatientTrack and PatientWorks can automate timers and generate reports for you.
  • Run a patient survey. You can ask about wait times and collect other kinds of helpful practice management feedback. Here are additional survey question ideas and implementation advice.
  • Assign a staff member to track times manually. They could compare patient sign in times versus treatment start times over a predetermined period (e.g., a week or a few days a month), then report back with the findings.
  • Recruit volunteers or hire patient flow consultants. These people would take detailed notes about the average visit length at your practice to identify bottlenecks without straining your staff’s bandwidth.

Once you have more information about your practice’s particular wait time challenges, you can focus on low-effort solutions to minimize frustrations whenever you do experience delays.

When we surveyed patients, a combined 86 percent said being told in advance how long they’ll have to wait would “definitely” or “probably” reduce wait time frustration. Seventy-eight percent would find a personal apology from the doctor helpful, too.

These free strategies trumped higher-cost measures in our survey, such as the availability of reading materials and refreshments.

Top Strategies for Minimizing Patient Wait Time Frustrations
 

wait time strategies
Another simple strategy for minimizing patient frustration applies to group practices in particular. When asked if they would be open to seeing another doctor in the practice if it meant a shorter wait, 69 percent of patients said yes.

Consider extending this option to waiting patients if another doctor in your practice is available to see them sooner.

Patient Willingness to See Another Doctor From Same Practice to Minimize Wait
 

minimize wait

Next Steps

With your practice’s profitability and reputation at stake, it’s clear that reducing patient wait times should be a priority in the management of your practice. This is especially true as patient satisfaction becomes an increasingly important performance indicator for physicians.

Here are the three main steps you can work on right now, which we’ve prioritized based on the results of our survey data:

  • Monitor wait times to identify and address specific bottlenecks causing delays (e.g., patient arrival times, staffing challenges).
  • Be upfront with patients about delays when they arrive and offer a personal apology once treatment begins.

To further discuss these findings or obtain access to any of the charts above, feel free to contact me at gaby@softwareadvice.com.

Survey Respondent Demographics

The greatest percentage of respondents in our patient sample are female and between the ages of 26 and 35.

Patient Demographics by Gender
gender demographics
Patient Demographics by Age
age demographics

The greatest percentage of respondents in our physician sample come from practices with 2 to 5 doctors.

Physician Demographics by Practice Size
 

physician demographics

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