Practice Notes

Wait times and patient satisfaction: Perception is reality

by Tiffany Chan

It’s not news that long wait times decrease patient satisfaction. We’ve been telling our members all year: Medical groups have to compete for increasingly consumer-driven business. As patients take a more active role in choosing their providers and data about patient experience become increasingly available, groups can no longer tolerate patient dissatisfiers like long wait times.

Groups around the country are tackling this challenge in myriad ways, from incenting providers on wait time metrics to redesigning their scheduling processes.

On one hand, some of our members report successfully reducing actual wait times, but without a resulting boost in patient satisfaction scores. On the other hand, other members improved patient satisfaction without reducing wait times. What's going on?

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You might be surprised to hear that when it comes to patient satisfaction, the actual amount of time patients wait may be less important than patients’ perception of wait times. To illustrate the distinction between targeting actual wait times and perception of wait times, we turn to an out-of-industry example.

How one airport eliminated complaints about wait times

A couple of years ago, the New York Times profiled a Houston airport that struggled to improve customer satisfaction with how long they were waiting for their baggage after arriving at the airport.

The airport’s first approach was to add baggage claim handlers. While this successfully lowered the time it took travelers to collect their baggage, the change had no impact on traveler satisfaction.

It turns out that even though travelers were getting their bags faster, they were spending 85% of their time waiting at the baggage claim. They decided to take a counterintuitive approach and took steps to maximize the distance between the arrival gates and the baggage carousel.

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Even though the total amount of time it took travelers to collect their bags actually increased, they spent most of that time walking to the baggage claim and only two minutes waiting at the carousel. Customers felt like the airport had promptly delivered their baggage—and complaints fell to zero.

Patient satisfaction and wait times

Source: Stone, Alex. "Why Waiting in Line is Torture." The New York Times, August 18, 2012; Medical Group Strategy Council interviews and analysis.

So, what can physician practices learn from an airport in Houston?

The airport had done nothing to reduce the actual wait time, but targeted customer perception of the wait time. We can take two key lessons from the airport’s experience:

1. Understand what customers want. The airport only knew that customers were unhappy with their wait times because it tracked and responded to customer complaints. Similarly, medical groups should diligently collect feedback from patients, such as by administering patient satisfaction surveys and running patient and family advisor groups. Learn about strategies for understanding what patients want by watching our webconference, "Winning on Patient Experience."

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2. Changing perceptions is often simpler than it seems. For the airport, the root cause of customer dissatisfaction was a perception issue whose solution was relatively easy—a matter of reassigning arrivals to farther gates and rerouted bags to farther baggage carousels. While hiring additional staff improved actual wait times, but it was unnecessary and expensive. As you can see from the survey results below, strategies for resolving patient perceptions of wait times can be quite simple–and make a big impact on patient satisfaction.

Patient satisfaction and wait times

Have medical groups successfully changed patient perceptions of wait times?

Two simple ways to address patient perception of wait times are sharing information with patients and a personal apology from the provider. One practice manager at Atlanta-based DeKalb Medical Group took these principles to heart and successfully boosted patient satisfaction with exam room wait times from the first percentile to the 70th.

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The solution was elegant: she hung a clock outside each exam room. After rooming each patient, the MA would set the clock. As a result, both MAs and the physicians would know how long the patient had been waiting in the exam room; MAs would give regular updates on the physician’s schedule and the physician would apologize for his tardiness when he entered the room.

Patient satisfaction and wait times

Has your medical group tackled patient perception of wait times? Let us know what you’ve tried and whether it has worked for you.

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