How long do patients (typically) wait in your office? Fifteen minutes? Thirty? Sixty? Two hours?
I say typically because there are times when we get knocked off our schedule. Sometimes the doctor (through no fault of his or her own) returns from surgery late. Sometimes an in-office emergency arises that requires immediate attention. Patients understand these extenuating circumstances.
What they do not understand is every time they present on time for their visit, they are forced to sit and wait. And wait. And wait. Sure, it is true that in many cases, patients forgive and forget unless it occurs again and again. More unfortunate is that often, the doctor never hears the patient’s complaint – and if the physician doesn’t hear it, did it really even happen?
Do not kid yourself. Just because you do not hear them complain, that does not mean they are not complaining. Ask any staff people about how many patient complaints they hear and they will fill your plate. The truth is patients are not only bellyaching to staff. After dumping an earful on staff, patients are quick to tell others, friends and family, about the long wait time in your office at every opportunity. You know the saying: one unhappy patient will tell 10 others and they will tell 10 more, etc. Enter Twitter and Facebook, and word travels at light speeds.
Some doctors maintain their time is valuable and they are worth waiting for but many of their patients feel differently, claiming their time is just as valuable. Would you tell your patient his life is less important? Patients argue that if they carve time out of their day and respect the scheduled appointment, they expect the physician to extend the same courtesy and consideration.
Other doctors may protest that it is the other way around. Patients do not respect them (or their time) and cite numbers regarding how many just do not show or call, leaving holes in their schedule. Holes don not pay the bills. So, is a patient logjam the best solution? Sadly, it is not the “no shows” who get penalized. It is the patients who keep their appointments and arrive on time only to be left lingering. Not exactly fair.
One author said, “Patients can cause delays by misrepresenting the reason for their visit, adding on complaints, arriving late to the appointment or being unprepared for the visit.”1 The reality is patients only do what they are allowed (or trained) to do. Improved operational systems, written policy and better training can rectify this. For whatever reason, doctors (or staff, on doctor’s orders) simply fail to exercise or enforce this manageable course of action.
There are a number of interactive blogs that address this hot subject with input from both sides of the table. If you have the time, read some of them.*2-5 (*Warning: NOT during patient hours!)
Admittedly, these blogs make some very logical points. One patient said she arrives at her doctor’s office in a good mood but the longer she waits, the grouchier she gets.3 (An angry patient is not always your most adherent patient or your biggest fan.) Another suggests leaving the “always late” doctor to find another, but not before writing a note and telling him or her why. Some just go straight to Yelp to give a bad review.5
One of the more interesting stories was about a woman who actually billed her doctor for the time she lost at work, while sitting for hours, waiting to be called into the office.4 Her argument was, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” The doctor did the right thing by her. He reimbursed her for her “wasted” time.
But how many times must he do that? Perpetual apologies or gift cards can be great Band Aids, but are only temporary fixes. By taking a more proactive approach (e.g., identify why the problem keeps recurring; discussing with staff; reviewing current scheduling procedures and handing out surveys for patient feedback), we can gain fact-based knowledge that will allow a practice to improve ineffective operations. It can even reduce those “no shows.” This really is the only solution.
Of course, “running late” may not even apply to you but if it does, here is the takeaway. Do not make your reception room your “waiting” room. In fact, do not even refer to it as such since perception is reality. Most consumers and management experts agree that keeping patients waiting once in a while is unavoidable and even acceptable in some cases. However, if you choose to take a defensive position that “late is OK” and continue to consistently keep patients waiting too long in your office (20 minutes routinely is too long), also understand that, “What you resist persists.” Acme Foot and Ankle down the street would be happy to see your patients on time.
I know your mission is to provide quality care and customer service for each and every patient. Face it though. Patients expect an on-time schedule as part of that care.
1. Available at http://abcnews.go.com/Health/patients-billed-doctors-waiting-time/story?...  . Published July 7, 2011. Accessed May 5, 2014.
2. Available at http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/06/30/time.worth.money.cohen/ 
3. Available at http://www.physicianspractice.com/blog/what-if-patient-bills-your-practi...  .
4. Available at http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2011/07/patients-bill-doctor-late.html  .
5. Available at http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2012/05/long-waits-doctors-office-disrespect...  .