86% of Patients Say Snacks in the Waiting Room Make Long Waits Easier

By: Lisa Morris on May 2, 2023
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In 2020, we ran a survey of patients and a survey of doctors to learn about the impact of long wait times. We found that two out of five patients were already mad at their doctors before they were even called back to the exam room.

We also learned that doctors weren’t taking this seriously. A combined 63% of physicians believed wait times had “no impact” or “minimal impact” on their ability to retain patients—but they were wrong. A quarter of patients had changed doctors on account of chronic long wait times.

Obviously, things have changed since 2020. Which is why we wanted to understand how the pandemic affected patient sentiment around wait times, as well as how doctors’ awareness of the patient experience has shifted. Physicians and practice leaders must understand how to minimize patient frustration around wait times if they want to keep them coming back. 

To do all of this, we conducted two new surveys (Software Advice’s 2023 Patient Survey* and 2023 Physician Survey**) designed to help us see the problem from each perspective.

Key findings

  • 46% of patients say they begin to feel frustrated with wait times between 16 and 25 minutes in, which is consistent with pre-pandemic survey data.

  • Over a quarter of doctors say patients at their practices see 30+ minute wait times often or very often. 

  • 44% of patients say they have switched doctors entirely just to avoid long wait times.

Patients still get annoyed around the 20-minute mark

In this year's survey, we asked patients how long it would take them to begin to feel frustrated while waiting to see a doctor. Surprisingly, this number hasn't changed much over the past three years. Most patients begin to feel frustrated with wait times around the 20-minute mark. 

This can be considered positive or negative news, depending on your outlook.

a clock breaking down the average time and percentages people had to wait at their most recent visit

In a positive light, it’s reassuring to know that patients haven’t don’t get frustrated any faster than they did before the pandemic. That’s especially nice in light of the immense strain COVID had on doctors, and the doubt so many healthcare workers faced from patients who weren’t taking the pandemic seriously.[1]

The bad news is that plenty of patients are still experiencing wait times exceeding 20 minutes every day. A quarter of doctors in our physician survey say patients at their practice experience 30-minute waits at least once a week.

With that in mind, let’s consider the actual stakes of leaving long wait times unaddressed.

The symptoms: Chronic long wait times equal fewer patients

The bottom line is that the longer you make patients wait, the less likely those patients are to come back to your practice

We asked patients how they’ve responded to long wait times, and 44% say they’ve changed doctors for that specific reason.

Software Advice: Most patients have changed doctors due to long wait times

Another 38% say they’ve left the doctor’s office in the middle of a long wait without ever actually seeing the provider, either rescheduling the appointment or canceling entirely. 

On the physicians’ side, 87% of doctors in our survey have received negative feedback from patients specifically regarding long wait times.

Software Advice: 87% of doctors have received negative patient feedback about long wait times

One positive change we observed when comparing this recent data with our 2020 survey was how seriously doctors are now taking patient wait times. Back in 2020, 63% of doctors believed long wait times had “no” or “minimal” impact on patient retention. 

Today, only 11% of providers believe long wait times to have an insignificant impact on the patient experience. 

There has certainly been a recent move to consumerize healthcare; these days, patients have a lot more power when it comes to choosing their providers. That explains why providers are paying more attention to their patients’ experiences, specifically when it comes to major pain points like long wait times. 

Now that doctors are more aware of the risks of long wait times, they can start thinking about what actions to take to minimize them. But before that, we need to understand what’s actually causing them.

Diagnosing the causes of long wait times

One of the biggest struggles for practices is finding the balance between booking enough appointments to fill the day and overbooking to the point of turning patients away. 

With no-shows costing an average $200 per missed appointment[2], providers are naturally inclined to overload their schedules in order to make up for this lost revenue. 

But the practice of overscheduling doesn't leave any cushion to account for other factors contributing to long wait times. For example, one in five patients aren’t arriving for their scheduled appointment until the exact start time or later, which can cause delays if those patients have to fill out intake paperwork before seeing the doctor.

Struggling with no-shows or delayed exam start times?

Remind patients about their appointment time (and to arrive early) with an appointment reminder tool.

Patients arriving late was a top factor for doctors in our survey when asked what causes long wait times, but it wasn't the top cause. The number one reason for long wait times is exams taking longer than expected, which means providers aren’t budgeting enough time for each appointment when scheduling for the day. 

While adjusting scheduling practices is one potential solution, there are plenty of other avenues worth exploring when trying to shorten your average wait time.

Software Advice: Top causes of long wait times according to doctors

Solutions for long wait times

When it comes to solving the problem of chronic long wait times, there are two routes providers can take: 

  1. Try to assuage frustrated patients by making wait times more pleasant.

  2. Try to shorten wait times by adopting new strategies or software to better manage scheduling.

1. Assuage

While neither option is prohibitively expensive, taking steps to improve the waiting experience is a generally less costly avenue, making it one that most providers should explore first. 

We asked patients in our survey how much certain factors would improve their waiting experience, and we learned that the number one thing a doctor can do to make waiting better is provide complimentary snacks and beverages.

Software Advice: Complimentary snacks most impactful strategy for relieving wait time frustration

Yep, it’s really that simple: 53% of patients say having snacks or drinks in the waiting room would significantly improve a long wait time, and 33% say it would somewhat improve the experience.

It’s important to note that eating and drinking may not be appropriate in certain settings like those that manage food allergies, communicable diseases, or outpatient surgery centers, but for many low-risk office visits, this might be a helpful customer service tool.

Many providers may have previously offered snacks or drinks in their waiting rooms, but pulled them during the pandemic to promote mask-wearing and minimize illness spread. While that’s still worth considering, there are compromises to be made. For example, you can provide individually packaged snacks so that patients don’t have to share serving utensils. 

A few other improvement options that ranked highly with patients include providing free Wi-Fi for them to access, and being upfront about how long they should expect to wait. 

On the physician side, we found that only 14% of providers are currently providing complimentary snacks or drinks, meaning the chances are good that this is an easy and quick solution you can bring to your own practice.

Conversely, we found that the number one solution doctors employ to improve the waiting experience is apologizing to patients. While that’s certainly a nice gesture, 22% of patients say it has no impact on their waiting experience.

Software Advice: Most used physician strategies for combating wait time frustration

2. Fix

If you’re already putting out chips and sharing your Wi-Fi password with patients but still getting negative feedback about long wait times, you should consider some options for fixing the root problem. 

We know from our data that the check-in and intake paperwork can often be a logjam for schedules. However, our patient survey shows that not many physicians are taking advantage of software to better manage these processes.

Software Advice: Over half of doctors aren't using patient intake software

Over half of patients say they weren't given the option to fill out intake paperwork online ahead of their appointment. As you may recall, 63% of providers said patients arriving unprepared was a factor in causing long wait times, so mitigating this issue will go a long way toward smoothing out delayed schedules. 

Our survey also found that only 17% of doctors use a dedicated system to formally monitor their wait times, while another 22% don’t monitor wait times at all.

The most popular software system among doctors for managing schedules is appointment reminder software, which serves to remind patients when to arrive for their scheduled exams. 

Other systems like intake software and virtual waitlisting software are less popular, but these tools can go a long way toward actually reducing patient wait times.

Telemedicine is your salvation

Telemedicine is invaluable for reducing patient wait times. Among patients who use this method to consult their providers, 53% say their wait times fell under five minutes. Compare that to the 90% of patients who waited more than five minutes for their most recent in-person appointment.

Software Advice: Wait time comparison between telemedicine and in-person appointments

For providers, 57% say patients wait between five and 15 minutes for in-person appointments, while 60% of patients wait between one and 10 minutes for telemedicine appointments. 

The data is clear here: Wait times are significantly reduced when patients consult providers via telemedicine instead of in-person. 

Snacks and software are your best tools to fight long wait times

Long wait times are still a serious concern for providers who want to keep patients coming back. But there are plenty of solutions available to fix this issue. 

Some of the more cost-effective solutions include:

  1. Providing complimentary snacks and beverages in your waiting room

  2. Providing access to free Wi-Fi

  3. Sharing estimated wait times with patients when they arrive

  4. Providing virtual waitlist options to patients

If you haven’t already done any (or all!) of these, you’ll want to get started right away. I recommend a dual-pronged approach to addressing wait time frustrations, though, if you want to nip this particular pain point in the bud.

To do that, you should get the ball rolling on software adoption to compound the benefits you’ll see from the above strategies. You can start by speaking with one of our advisors about which software platforms will work best to solve this problem for you. You’ll want to explore options that will help you with one or all of the following: 

  1. Developing a formal method to monitor wait times at your practice

  2. Managing check-in and intake paperwork at your practice

  3. Offering telemedicine appointments to streamline patient exams

You can schedule a call or click here to chat with a software advisor now.

Survey methodology

* The Software Advice 2023 Patient Wait Times Survey was also conducted in March 2023. It polled 500 patients in the U.S. who had seen a healthcare provider, including general practitioners, specialists, and mental health providers, within the last 2 years. 

** The Software Advice 2023 Physician Wait Times Survey was conducted in March 2023. It polled 200 doctors working at practices in the U.S. with no more than 20 licensed healthcare providers on staff. 

Both surveys were conducted with the intention of understanding the causes and effects of long wait times, as well as preferred solutions to the issue.