It’s about time: When the waiting room is the worst part of a doctor’s visit

July 17, 2018

When you go to your doctor’s office, does it seems as if the only person whose time is important is the physician you are waiting—seemingly endlessly—to see? Overbooking of appointments, disorganization, and lack of empathy often leave patients cooling their heels in the reception area or in a treatment room for longer than it will take to actually treat their illnesses.

In fact, the experience of waiting is an important component of overall patient satisfaction, based on a study by Nemschoff, a division of the furniture design firm Herman Miller that makes chairs and tables for reception rooms.

The number of minutes (or hours) depends on the situation, but the average time patients spend waiting to see their providers is 22 minutes.  And it is no surprise, Nemschoff found, that as the wait time lengthens, patient satisfaction lessens:

  • Respondents who waited five minutes or less expressed 95.4% satisfaction with their experience;
  • Those who stuck around for 11-15 minutes, said they were 91.6% satisfied; and
  • Patients who had to dilly dally for more than 30 minutes were only 80.4% satisfied—even before seeing the doctor.

If the staff keeps patients in the waiting room updated, that may positively influence the experience—but only if the doctor sees them within a “reasonable” amount of time.

Even in a perfectly supportive atmosphere, waiting can be stressful. One study showed that the most profound source of anxiety in waiting is wondering how long the wait will be, and when there is no visible order to the line, people feel nervous about whether their place in line is preserved.

Interestingly enough, perceived wait time is a more compelling indicator of patient satisfaction than actual wait time. A wait that “feels” long due to crowded, noisy surroundings or a lack of positive distractions—such as art, aquariums, or windows—can lower satisfaction scores even more. This suggests that focusing on the emotion-related component of waiting may be an important part of improving the patient experience.

Indeed, whenever patients are forced to wait, that experience influences their perception of quality of care. As public zones where people with illnesses gather, waiting rooms are sometimes seen as places where germs abound. This impression can create a sense of discomfort and urgency to leave the space as soon as possible—making it more difficult to tolerate service delays, errors, and inefficiencies.

It is not surprising that Nemschoff recommends using comfortable seating to help make the wait more pleasant. The company advises physicians to consider: Does the furniture in the waiting room fit the bodies of the people who are using it? For example, while most waiting rooms are equipped for average-sized adults, there are several other populations that deserve to be addressed. For example, furniture scaled for children and designed to support their play can improve their experience. Research has shown that waiting in healthcare settings can be anxiety-provoking for children and their families, but positive distractions have been shown to reduce this anxiety, leading to positive health outcomes.

Another group that deserves consideration is high-weight users. Current design recommendations suggest that a minimum of 10% of seating adjacent to bariatric areas should accommodate people up to 600 pounds. However, researchers at Herman Miller recommend that each institution should assess the weight of its own population using electronic medical records to determine the load rating and percentage of high-weight seating needed in the waiting rooms.

Of course, healthcare organizations aren’t the only places where people wait to be served. By looking to other industries that have experimented with innovative queuing methods, healthcare organizations may find new approaches that make “getting in line” less stressful.

The researchers suggest that making the following changes in the waiting area may help both staff and patients:

  1. Early check-in. Mayo Clinic is taking cues from the airline industry to let patients interact with one of three systems when they arrive. Regular visitors go to an automatic kiosk, guests who visit less frequently come to the front desk, and a roving facilitator with a tablet greets guests when lines back up or people need help filling out forms. A recent study found that implementing self-serve kiosks to speed up the registration process was associated with higher patient satisfaction.
  2. Posted waiting times. Displaying department waiting times enables people to relax while waiting, rather than having the anxiety of constantly wondering when their names will be called. In one study, patients who periodically received information regarding emergency department processes and medical procedures on devices such as TV monitors perceived significantly shorter stays and were more satisfied.3
  3. Pager or mobile phone updates. Commonly found in restaurants, these tools give people the option to wander when wait times are long and return when their check-in time nears.
  4. Progressive check-in. While overall wait time may or may not be shorter, research found that zoning the waiting area can aid understanding and the feeling of progression. The Stanford University Medical Center has divided its waiting areas into activity rooms that resemble a home, including a dining room and living room where patients and family members can watch TV. This approach may help people feel that they’re getting closer to being served and ward off boredom.

So, next time you have a doctor’s appointment, consider bringing a copy of this story with you. If you don’t get taken quickly or feel uncomfortable in the waiting area, you may want to “prescribe” some changes to your physician after he or she diagnoses what’s wrong with you!

Research contact: @Nemschoff

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