Thoughts on fixing the patient waiting game

'We've become a society that is used to getting everything immediately: our e-mails, our messages, our favorite songs and movies'
By Michelle Ronan Noteboom
09:42 AM
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Recently a friend of mine posted this note on Facebook:

Waited for fifty minutes today to see my doctor before walking out due to time constraints. Thought it would have been nice to tell me when I first walked in how long the wait time was going to be. Is this just the expectation now with doctors – that they are running behind and you'll wait however long you have to?

We've become a society that is used to getting everything immediately: our e-mails, our messages, our favorite songs and movies. Not surprisingly, we get annoyed when we do have to wait to get a table at a restaurant, for a repair person to show up at our house – or for our turn to see the doctor.

[See also: Patient view: Don't you know who I am?]

Sometimes waiting is unavoidable and we simply have to accept it as an inconvenient truth. As my friend noted, however, if you're going to be made to wait, it's nice to be told as soon as possible.

Last weekend I moved. Because I work from home, Internet service is vital so I had scheduled an installation with AT&T well in advance. I was told the technician would arrive on the 15th between 9 and 11 a.m. and had received a couple of emails and texts confirming the times.

On the 15th I went to the new hours and waited. After an hour and half the technician had not appeared, so I went online to check his status. Imagine my fury when I see a revised installation date – two and a half weeks into the future.

I promptly raised holy heck with anyone who would listen. No one could explain to me why the date got changed, nor why I hadn't been notified, though everyone agreed there had been a failure with some sort of automated process. After wasting a few hours on the phone, AT&T rescheduled me for the next morning.

[See also: What does 'patient engagement' really mean?]

Thankfully the installation was completed with no further drama. As the technician was leaving, he told me to expect someone from AT&T to contact me and ask how he did. He gave me a big smile and said it would be great if I gave him all "10s."

Obviously AT&T rewards its technicians based on customer satisfaction. I would bet money that AT&T's scheduling and communications team aren't similarly compensated. In fact, I'm looking forward to participating in their satisfaction survey so I can give the scheduling people a zero for their part of the process. Meanwhile, I am happy to give the smiling technician a 10.

Tying compensation to satisfaction is a brilliant concept, not just for motivating high performance, but also for giving customers some small sense of power when things go really well or really poorly. Based on my friend's recent experience, I'm pretty confident that her doctor's compensation is not tied to patient satisfaction.

As healthcare shifts to new payment models based on performance, physicians risk a hit to their bank account if patients are dissatisfied with their care experience. Providers have long understood the correlation between patient satisfaction, patient retention, and malpractice lawsuits, but now the stakes are even higher.

To ensure patient satisfaction goals are met, physicians can certainly try steal a page from my AT&T technician's playbook and offer a big smile and a plea. Alternatively, providers can leverage new technologies to improve practice workflows and minimize patient wait times. Some examples include:

  • RTLS technologies to track patients, physicians, and staff as they move about the clinic. The collected data can be used to identify bottlenecks and make necessary adjustments.
  • The automation of repetitive processes such as prescription refills and test orders and the integration of standing orders within EHRs. Routine tasks can then be delegated to other members of the care team.
  • Accessing HIEs to capture critical data in advance of a patient's visit. Physicians then have a more complete record and duplicate testing can be minimized.

Healthcare consumers will be the lucky beneficiaries of these types of initiatives. Our expectations are high and we often expect instant gratification, but in the end most of us are generally reasonable.

We understand that some delays are unavoidable and occasionally automated systems fail.

And if an unexpected delay happens, your best bet for still earning that perfect 10 is to communicate the bad news quickly - and wear a big smile.