Patients Want To Wait Less for Doctors, Better Communication Makes That Possible

By Allison Hart, vice president of marketing, West.

Allison Hart

Americans expect customer service to be fast. Whether they’re at the bank, the airport, their doctor’s office or elsewhere, they don’t like to be kept waiting. When waits are long, consumers are disappointed – or worse. But like it or not, consumers know waiting is probable in certain situations. For example, patients have come to expect they will have to wait when visiting healthcare providers. They aren’t wrong. In the U.S., the average in-office wait time when visiting a doctor is 18 minutes and 13 seconds, according the 2018 Vitals Index report.

Despite their best efforts, healthcare providers and organizations haven’t been able to eliminate waits in healthcare offices. Doing so may not be realistic. However, healthcare teams can minimize waiting and deliver better patient experiences by being more transparent about delays and communicating proactively with patients.

A majority of Americans feel healthcare keeps them waiting more than other industries. A West survey of 1,036 adults and 317 healthcare providers in the U.S. revealed 83 percent of patients believe healthcare organizations are more likely than companies in other industries to run behind schedule or keep them waiting. Think about that. Airlines frequently run late. When they do, passengers can be delayed for hours, or even sometimes days. So, why is healthcare the industry known for making people wait? It may be partially due to how healthcare communicates, or rather doesn’t communicate, about delays. Here are two communication strategies healthcare teams can use to repair their reputation and give patients better experiences, even when they must wait.

Notify patients about delays and invite them to adjust their arrival time

Airlines send emails and text messages to passengers when flights are delayed. But healthcare teams rarely send patients notifications to let them know to expect a delay. This is an easy fix. When providers are behind schedule, staff can send automated messages to alert patients that their doctor is running late. Then, patients can adjust their arrival time and spend less time waiting. For a patient who is using his lunch hour for an appointment, having the option to arrive 15 minutes later and miss less work might be helpful. The point is, when patients are aware of delays, they can adjust their schedules, make plans to compensate for a later than expected appointment and spend less time waiting in their provider’s office.

According to West’s survey, 80 percent of patients would like to receive notifications from their healthcare team, like those they receive from other businesses and organizations, when providers are delayed. Healthcare teams should recognize this as an area of opportunity. Currently, less than half (49 percent) of providers say they send alerts – text messages, voice calls or emails – when there are delays that impact appointments.

For healthcare teams that currently use appointment reminders, sending notifications to alert patients of delays is simple. Teams can use the same technology and process for both messages. Staff can select which patients to send the notifications to, and then send a templated or custom message.

Send detailed reminder messages to ready patients for appointments and maintain on-time schedules

Doctors and their staff catch most of the blame for delays, but they aren’t the only ones who derail schedules. Patients play a role, too. When patients show up late for appointments or are generally unprepared, it causes delays. Ideally, patients would always arrive to their appointments early with their insurance card in one hand and their co-payment in the other hand. In reality, checking patients in doesn’t always go so smoothly.

A lot of healthcare teams send patients appointment reminder messages a day or two prior to scheduled appointments. While these messages can help remind patients to show up on time on the correct day, that shouldn’t be their only use. In addition to reminding patients when appointments are, these messages can request that patients bring their insurance card to their appointment or have a form of payment with them in case a co-payment is owed. That’s not all – healthcare teams can send detailed reminder messages that instruct patients to fill out paperwork at home before arriving to their appointment. Or, messages can be used to notify patients of construction in the area that could impact the amount of time it takes to travel to their appointment.

The key is for healthcare providers to recognize that there are ways to turn simple appointment reminders into more comprehensive communications. Then, providers can expand how they use reminder messages to make appointments run more smoothly and maintain on-time schedules.

The two strategies discussed here are simple to implement using technology most healthcare providers and organizations already have in place. Even so, healthcare teams may wonder: Does it really matter that much if patients spend time waiting? Anyone who isn’t convinced that small communication adjustments are worthwhile may want to consider this point: patients don’t feel valued by their doctors when they are repeatedly kept waiting. And, based on West’s survey, the large majority (98 percent) of patients view “feeling valued” as essential for creating ideal healthcare interactions, meaning wait times pose a problem.

West’s survey revealed that around one in three Americans believe healthcare organizations are not as focused on delivering top-notch customer experiences as grocery stores (30 percent), travel companies (30 percent) and financial services companies (29 percent). Likewise, more than half of providers (56 percent) are at least somewhat convinced that healthcare is trailing other industries in delivering meaningful consumer experiences. With some small adjustments to how healthcare teams use the patient engagement technology they already have in place, providers may be able to change these opinions. One certainty is that even if healthcare teams can’t abolish waiting entirely, they can improve communication and give patients better healthcare experiences.

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