This is the topic that never goes away, perhaps because the problem never seems to go away. No matter how carefully you schedule, how much time you spend reminding patients about their appointment times, or how efficient your back office staff and providers are, there are times when the days don’t go as planned and patients are left waiting longer than they’d like and longer than they should.
Let’s first look at some basic steps you can take to reduce patient wait times, and then at what you can do on days when you have several walk-ins who must be seen, a doctor gets called away for an emergency, or the computer system goes down – any of which can result in patients becoming impatient, and rightly so.
In general, you can reduce patient wait times by following a few simple practices:
- Don’t overbook providers. They can only see as many patients as they can see.
- Leave one catch-up spot open on each provider’s appointment book in the late morning and again in the late afternoon.
- Don’t skimp on back office staff. If one additional medical assistant can help improve patient flow for two or three providers, the additional salary will be more than covered by increased volume.
- Empower staff to give providers reminders to “step up the pace” when they fall behind.
When days get crazy due to one of the factors mentioned above, be prepared for how you’ll handle patients who are made to wait or who may not end up being seen at all (e.g., if it’s 3 p.m. and a doctor is called to the hospital and won’t be back before the end of the day).
Put procedures in place for how specific situations will be handled and train staff to assess situations quickly and decide what needs to be done, depending on the issue. Computers down? Immediately employ a back-up method for accessing the appointment schedule and allowing providers and back office staff to document patient encounters. Doctor called to the hospital for an emergency? Have a system in place for rescheduling waiting patients so that they are seen within a few days. (This might mean adding a couple of early morning or early evening hours to the schedule. How important is patient satisfaction to your practice?)
Whenever patients are being made to wait or need to be rescheduled, prompt and clear communication is the key to reducing frustration. When you know that someone is going to have to wait longer than usual to see a provider, give them the option to stay in the office, run an errand or two and come back later in the day, or to reschedule for the following day. If patients need to be rescheduled for another day, inform them as soon as you know the reality of the situation.
Don’t overlook the power of an apology. Staff should be trained to acknowledge the inconvenience caused to patients and providers should offer their apologies as well. A sincere I’m so sorry you had to wait to see me today; you now have my undivided attention from a doctor can work wonders in terms of making patients happy, even those who were very unhappy only ten minutes earlier.