Doctors and their staff continuously strive to ensure that quality care and patient satisfaction are a top priority. However, reducing wait times is still a common challenge. In healthcare, patient wait times are unpredictable and unavoidable. According to recent data, patients wait around 15-20 minutes before getting to see a doctor. While this is not a substantial amount of time, your patients are paying you for a service and they expect you to value and respect their time. Long patient wait times are an impediment to the relationship between doctor and patient. Of course, there may be times when unexpected situations can disrupt your clinical workflow, such as patient no-shows or medical emergencies, but the key to working with unexpected change is doctor communication and patient preparedness. By communicating with your patients and helping them prepare for their appointments, you give them control over their own health care. Here are some of the ways you can help your patients prepare for their next appointments and prevent long wait times to benefit both you and them.
1. Tell them to pick a good time
When scheduling a doctor’s appointment, trying to get the first available time slot of the day is ideal. “Just like the first flights out of an airport are usually on time, the first appointments of the day in a clinic are usually on time. Over the course of the day, life happens - patient emergencies, etc. - and there is a domino effect on rest of the schedule,” said Bola Oyeyipo, family physician and geriatrician. Tell your patients to talk to your receptionist about optimal time slots. They may be surprised to learn that a doctor’s schedule is commonly backed up during the mid-morning and late afternoon time periods.
2. Tell them to identify the goal of their visit
Let your patients know that you work for them and that they should focus on the goal of their visit. Inform them that they can rely on you to guide them in their health and well-being. It is vital that the doctor-patient relationship involves mutual communication and trust.
3. Tell them to announce themselves
Your patients should always let your receptionist know when they have arrived and how long they have been waiting to see you. A vital part of a doctor’s appointment is signing in. “I know one patient that… waited over two hours while the waiting room had been turned over several times. His name was not in the electronic medical record system as checked-in and waiting,” said Marshall A. Maglothin, Health Care Engagement Partner at Tatum.
4. Tell them to always come prepared
Let your patients know that if they have any new insurance or personal information, they should come in a little earlier to accommodate for any new paperwork. “Patients should request that the paperwork they’re asked to complete be emailed or mailed to their homes prior to the appointment. This gives patients more time to complete questions about medical history and read the fine print on the forms,” said Sarah O’Leary, Founder of Exhale Healthcare Advocates. Moreover, ask them to make a list of their symptoms, questions, or concerns before their appointment so that they can recall anything that might come up. “Patients write down all they want to discuss with a healthcare provider prior to the visit. Also, having a trusted friend accompany the patient can help make the visit more efficient and effective for the individual,” added O’Leary.
5. Tell them not to be late
It is important to inform your patients that they should not be late for their appointments. Waiting on a patient is not only inconsiderate on their part, but their tardiness may prolong the wait time of the next patient, leading you to shuffle your schedule to accommodate them. What’s more, you could have used the time you spent waiting on them to see another patient. “If it is your first visit, it is critical that you research the location and parking availability of the clinic beforehand. If a dry run is not convenient, check out the building and parking with Google Maps Street View. Also, ask the office for any tips about the traffic flow around the office, most convenient parking, designated spaces, etc., and its exact location,” said Maglothin.
6. Tell them to call ahead of time
Let your patients know that if they ever feel they will be a few minutes late, they should call ahead of time to let you know. “Call ahead to see if the doctor is running on schedule. Often patients don’t know that the doctor is running late until they arrive at the office. A quick call ahead can save time,” said O’Leary.
7. Tell them to bring with them any relevant paperwork
Patients should be aware to bring with them any relevant paperwork to their appointments. This includes medical records, any health reports, updates on insurance plans, or lists containing important health-related information. “Successful planning begins at home. Bring important records with you, which should include your recent laboratory test results, a current list of your present and past diagnoses, and a current medication list based on the medicines you are presently taking and how often you take your pills. Every piece of information is a clue to making a diagnosis,” said Dr. Michael Aaronson, nephrologist.
8. Tell them to know their personal and family medical histories
Each patient should be informed of their personal and family medical histories. Let your patients know that they should discuss with you any relevant information relating to their health. This can help you avoid giving them ineffective treatments and quicken the process in providing them with the right type of treatment.
9. Tell them not to be rude
In a clinical setting, a lot of unexpected situations can arise. You should let your patients know this. They should be understanding if any emergency situation comes up that cuts into their appointment time. They should not be rude or take their frustration out on someone within the practice. “New patients show up at the exact time of their appointment without having completed their paperwork. Emergencies happen, even in entirely office-based practices, and a provider whose child becomes sick at school, or a patient who falls over, has a seizure or chest pains, all can easily cause an hour's delay. The front desk may be able to assist you, and they are never personally responsible for delays,” said Maglothin.
10. Let them know how long they will have to wait
When patients are anxious, their wait time seems longer than it actually is and they become more agitated and impatient. For this reason, let your patients know how long they can expect to wait until their appointment, allowing them to relax a little and come to a level of understanding.
11. Tell them to bring an advocate with them
As a healthcare professional, you are probably well aware that doctor’s visits can be overwhelming and stressful for your patients. When it comes to health, there is always that fear of the unknown. For this reason, let your patients know that they can bring an advocate with them to their appointments, such as a relative or friend. An advocate can process any health-related information that your patient may not be able to as well as they should and they can provide moral support.
The goal of every doctor’s appointment is to provide quality care and the right type of treatment at the right time. Sometimes, this can be easier said than done because wait times are not going to go away. However, by following simple strategies, they can become a lot more bearable. One of the best things that you can do to benefit both you and your patients is to improve the acuity of your practice. Having your patients come in on time can ensure the proper flow of your busy schedule on a daily basis. Believe it or not, reducing long wait times is the easiest way to set your practice apart from the competition.