Patient Satisfaction: Patient Waits

by Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, Health System

Donna SollenbergerThere is an excellent article on patient satisfaction in the most recent issue of Health System Friday Focus by Dr. Kevin Merkley from UTMB Health Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences which I hope every employee will read. Your personal contribution to patient satisfaction cannot be underestimated. It is always wonderful to share the stories of what we have done well, but we must also share the stories of how we can improve; I’d like to share with you one such instance.

A patient was checked into a clinic for an appointment. Within 15 minutes, the patient was taken to the exam room, where vitals were taken. The medical assistant then left the room, and the patient was left waiting for the physician. After thirty minutes had passed, the patient began to think that perhaps they had been overlooked, especially since it was toward the end of the day, so they stepped out in the hallway to ask a person at the nurses’ station if they were aware that the patient was here. At that time, the patient was told that the physician was running an hour late—this was the first time the patient had been updated.

We now had an upset patient. What could we have done differently? How could you have helped? The answer is that we need to assure we are communicating with our patients about waits and delays.

A paper by David Maister, The Psychology of Waiting Lines, reveals that there are several factors that can affect people’s perception of waiting. Among these, he notes that uncertain waits seem longer than known, finite waits. People wait more calmly when they’re told, “The doctor will see you in thirty minutes,” than when they’re told, “The doctor will see you soon.” In addition, unexplained waits feel longer than explained waits. Also keep in mind that sometimes patients are anxious about their appointments, which can also contribute to the frustration of waiting.

A better way to handle the situation of the patient in the story above would have been to inform the patient upon check-in, or as soon as it had come to the staff’s attention, of the delay, and to offer the patient the option to reschedule their visit if they would like (since it was an nearly an hour wait). Most of the time, the patient will stay because they are already at their appointment, but we need to empower our patients to make these decisions. The only way this can happen is through communication.

This communication includes dialogue among staff (for example, staff in the back of the clinic should let the front desk team know when the physician is running late, so that they can inform the patient). It includes dialogue with any patient left in an exam room for 15 minutes or longer (staff should keep the patient updated about how much longer they should expect to wait before they see the doctor). Finally, it includes dialogue between physicians and staff (physicians need to let the clinic staff members know when they are running late so they can communicate this to the patient).

Each of us must take responsibility for communicating with each other and with the patient. Our patients will be patient with us if we pay more attention to our communication with them about waits and delays. Let’s be proactive about our communication, starting today!

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