By GLADYS TORRES
Long waits aren’t always avoidable in the medical industry and they have the propensity to produce high levels of stress and anxiety in some patients. Very few people enjoy waiting in queues to begin with. When you compound these tendencies with the anxiety of waiting for a diagnosis or potentially concerning test results, it’s all too easy for patients to become frustrated and restless.
While patients are essentially the customers of a medical practice, they cannot always have the same level of immediate service that they would expect from a retail organization. Unexpected emergencies may come up for doctors and nursing staff at any given time. It’s rare that these occurrences are controllable, nor can they get ignored.
Even if long waits are unavoidable, it’s still possible to handle patients’ waiting experiences in a way that minimizes anxiety and frustration.
Understanding how people’s perceptions of waiting are influenced can provide valuable insights into how you, as a medical professional, can make the waiting experience a more positive one.
Tips for Reducing Patient Anxiety During Long Waits
Occupy Patients’ Time
Unoccupied time seems to pass significantly slower than occupied time for most people. As noted by respected philosopher William James, “boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time itself.” Patients sitting in a waiting room with little to do but gaze out of the window will become restless and frustrated far faster than those who have something to do to help pass the time.
Efficient medical practices understand this phenomenon and work hard to improve the patient experience. They put measures in place to change their patients’ perceptions of time and its passage. Waiting patients may have their time occupied with necessary paperwork. But it may also be beneficial to offer them fresh, topical magazines and perhaps even miniature tablets to browse on too.
Many practices have televisions installed in their waiting rooms to keep their waiting patients entertained. It’s recommended that you set the television to a neutral, widely appealing channel such as a news or nature channel that the majority of your patients will appreciate. You can use a TV for marketing purposes too, especially if your practice offers cosmetic or dental surgery that has visible results.
Use Your Assistants to Your Patients’ Advantage
Waiting patients want to get started with their medical appointments as soon as possible. It might not be possible to have them see or speak to the doctor at the exact time they booked their appointments. But your practice can still create the impression of timeliness by taking patients out of the common waiting room and back to the room where the doctor will see them.
If this is not an option, you can also consider a triage system. In this case, every patient is first met by a nurse who will enter their personal information and symptoms into the system. The nurse then decides whether they should see the doctor or a registered nurse. This approach does not impact the time it takes for a patient to see a medical professional. But it does technically reduce patients’ waiting times and make it seem as though their appointments have begun on time, even if delays are present.
Another, more simple approach is to simply offer your patients forms to fill out before they see the doctor on duty. This fills each patient’s time with form filling and makes it seem as though their appointments have begun, even if they are still technically waiting.
Provide Specific Time Estimates
Uncertain periods of waiting seem much longer than waiting periods in which you expect a specific outcome. This is why it’s crucial that your practice staff provide patients with details regarding how long their waits will be. Patients who’re told that they will be seen ‘soon’ may assume that your practice staff are bluffing. As a result, they may become more anxious.
However, those that know exactly how long they have to wait will be more certain of the outcome and thus less prone to frustration and stress. They will feel free to use their wait productively by checking their smartphones, sending emails, or reading a magazine.
Explain the Reasons for Waiting
Your patients certainly don’t need to know exactly what takes place in your practice. But some transparency is helpful in alleviating their anxiety while they wait. Instruct your front desk staff to provide waiting patients with valid explanations about why a doctor is delayed.
Generic excuses about a doctor called away for an emergency may seem sufficient. But most patients will become frustrated with this obvious lack of information. Offering them a brief but valid explanation will set their minds at ease, help them cultivate compassion and patience, and make the wait ahead easier for them.
Avoid Imposing Unfair Waiting Periods
Patients sitting in a doctor’s waiting room expect to be seen according to the order they arrived and took their seats. Those already seated who see other patients arrive after them but see a doctor first will perceive this treatment as unfair and become agitated.
In some cases, it may be necessary for the doctor to see certain patients sooner than others. In these cases, it’s essential for your practice staff to make it clear to patients exactly why their wait time may be different to that of another patient. As an example, if there are many different practitioners working from your premises, your patients should be given an explanation that their waiting times will differ due to each practitioner’s unique schedule.
A front desk staff member or triage nurse who greets patients as they arrive can manage their expectations of wait times by offering information about wait time variations upfront. Most people will be happy to wait patiently if they have a valid explanation as to why it is necessary for them to do so. If they have a TV to watch, magazines to read, or games to play, they’ll feel even less stressed about the time.
Reduce Time & Improve Patient Perception
It’s in the best interests of every medical practitioner to minimize the wait times that their patients face in their practices. This is one of the most effective steps you can take to improve your patients’ perceptions of your practice and its services without spending significant sums of money on infrastructural upgrades.
Patients that are seen and assisted on time will be significantly more likely to recommend a practice to their colleagues and acquaintances. This is especially true if the practice’s competitors have standard, long waiting periods in place.
Minimizing wait times and keeping your patients informed is possibly the simplest way available to set your practice apart.
Gladys Torres is a writer who's an advocate for self-care and leading a healthy lifestyle. She hopes that her writing can inspire others to prioritize their mental and physical well being.