Practices Must Reduce Patient Wait Times—Here’s How

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

Well, the average patient wait time for practices across the country is around 20 minutes —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
How Long It Takes for Patients to Feel Wait Time Frustration

Practices that fail to address these wait-time frustrations stand to lose up to 54 percent of their patient base in a year—and that’s not counting potential patients who avoid your practice after learning about long wait times through online reviews.

Failure to implement solutions in your waiting room will severely hurt 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 help gain a better understanding of the complex issue of patient wait times:

patient wait time surveys

Key Findings:


  • More than half of physicians surveyed say patients experience wait times longer than 20 minutes “often,” and 61 percent of physicians have heard negative feedback from their patients regarding wait times. [Read more]
  • A combined 63 percent of physicians believe wait times have “no impact” or “minimal impact” on their ability to retain patients; however, 26 percent of patients say they’ve changed doctors because of long wait times. [Read more]
  • 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. [Read more]
  • Eighty-eight percent of patients say being told in advance what the wait time will be could help reduce frustration. [Read more]

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 hear his expert analysis on our findings.

PETER KIRK

CEO at SERMO

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

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 to overbook the agenda. This is tougher than it sounds, considering health care providers must account for the unexpected, such as 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 1 to 28 percent of a practice’s total patient interactions.

That’s a lot of lost revenue, so it’s 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 said “daily” and 28 percent said “at least once a week.”

How Often Patients Encounter 20+ Minute Wait Times
How Often Patients Encounter 20 plus Minute Wait Times

Given this finding, we weren’t surprised to learn that well over half of physicians we surveyed have heard negative feedback from patients about wait times at their practice, and only 30 percent said they had not heard wait time complaints from patients.

Percentage of Physicians Who Have Heard Patient Wait Time Complaints
Percentage of Physicians Who Have Not Heard Patient Wait Time Complaints

Why You Can’t Afford to Have Long Wait Times

One reason lengthy wait times are still so prevalent is that many physicians don’t see them 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
Physician Perception of Wait Times

That perception is contradicted by the results of our patient survey, which indicate that wait times do have a tremendous 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
Common Consequences of Long Wait Times for Medical Appointments

Twenty-eight percent of patients say they’ve literally walked out of a waiting room, choosing to reschedule or even cancel rather than wait any longer.

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 review sites specifically because of wait times.

That’s a big deal because nearly half (42 percent) of patients specifically look for information about wait times when evaluating new doctors through online reviews.

Patient’s Evaluation of Wait-Time Information in Online Reviews
Patients Evaluation of Wait Time Information in Online Reviews

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.”

Patient-Related Delays Cause Most Long Wait Times

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).

Contributing Factors to Long Wait Times, According to Physicians
Chart showing physicians take on the factors contributing to long wait times

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.”

The truth is, patients are typically the ones creating those long wait times for each other.

For example, patients who arrive late to their appointments and still expect to be seen cause physicians to run behind in their schedules. Likewise, patients can book shorter appointments and then take extra time once they get in the exam room.

So, what’s the treatment? Physicians can rely on a few valuable tools and strategies to help combat 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 Massachusetts-based practice, patients receive warning letters the first three times they’re more than five 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 complete paperwork ahead of their visit to determine whether their symptoms appear to require additional attention. (Learn about online intake forms and patient intake software systems here.)

It’s noteworthy that 25 percent of physicians told us “technical difficulties” impact wait times. These include glitches with medical software and/or delays in digitally documenting health information. EMR usability is a common complaint among doctors, including of 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

Learning a new system does take time, but your tech should be making your practice more efficient, not less efficient. To reduce software-related delays, you must first identify and troubleshoot bottlenecks in your software usage. From there, you can replace the time-consuming applications with new ones that save time. (Check out our full guide to overcoming EMR challenges here.)

Two out of 10 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.

Tips for reducing 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.

Once you begin implementing these targeted strategies to eliminate specific causes of long wait times, you’ll begin to see improvement in your own schedule (and stress level) as well as your patients’ experiences.

Potential Cures for Wait Time Frustration

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

“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.”

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.”

Percentage of Physicians Monitoring Patient Wait Times
Percent of Physicians Monitoring Patient Wait Times

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. Many patient scheduling and tracking vendors 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 88 percent said being told in advance how long they’ll have to wait would “definitely” or “probably” reduce wait time frustration. Seventy-seven 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 television or reading materials.

Top Strategies for Minimizing Patient Wait-Time Frustrations
Top Strategies for Minimizing Patient Wait Time Frustrations

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, 67 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
Patient Willingness to See Another Doctor From Same Practice to 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:

  1. Invest in scheduling tools that can help patients arrive on time and in the right charting software to speed up your documentation process.
  2. Monitor wait times to identify and address specific bottlenecks causing delays (e.g., patient arrival times, staffing challenges).
  3. 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 lisa@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 Age
Patient wait time survey respondents by age

Patient Demographics by Gender
Patient wait time survey respondents by gender

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

Physician Demographics by Practice Size
Patient wait times survey physician respondents by practice size


Methodology
To find the data in this report, we surveyed a total sample of 329 patients in the United States who had seen at least one doctor in the past year and 1,231 physicians working in U.S. practices with between one and 25 doctors. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.

If you have comments or would like to obtain access to any of the charts above, please contact Lisa@softwareadvice.com. For more information, see our methodologies page.

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