Patient Moments of Truth and Your Practice: Waiting Room Experience

January 29, 2012

The waiting room experience can contribute significantly to overall patient satisfaction at your medical practice.

Whether it's your bank branch teller queue, the checkout line at the grocery store, or even your kids’ favorite ride at Disneyworld, waiting times can bring out impatience in all of us. Waiting also provides an opportunity for people to make a lot of observations about their environment and notice things they may have otherwise just passed by. In a physician's office, it's no different. The waiting room experience can contribute significantly to overall patient satisfaction. Think through these areas and ask yourself how intentional and well-designed is your waiting room experience?

1. Visual cues. In an intangible service business, consumers use physical, tangible cues to perceive the level of quality they receive. This truth manifests itself in your waiting room. Office decor and style should be modern and up-to-date. Reading materials should be well-organized, neat and recent. Make it a task in your office to remove any magazines that are more than two months old and/or have been used so much that the corners are worn. Look at the overall cleanliness of your waiting area. Who's responsible for keeping the floors cleaned? Is it time to update or remove the carpeting in the area? Is your flooring free of rugs or seams that would be difficult or dangerous for patients in wheelchairs, walkers, or crutches? Is there adequate natural lighting in the room? If you have a kids’ play area, how regularly is the equipment in that area cleaned? Remember, there is a captive audience sitting in that room with nothing better to do for 10 minutes to 15 minutes than to make observations about your office. Make sure that they are making observations that reflect who you are and the level of quality they should expect.

2. Other physical cues. View your waiting room through the eyes of a patient. Is there adequate seating in your lobby? Is the seating comfortable? If your chairs or couches have rips or tears in the upholstery, have them repaired or replaced. Look at your furniture layout and determine if it facilitates eye contact between guests that are talking with each other. Be sure to have a large, easy-to-read clock visible from the wait area - the anxiety of other appointments in the day can contribute to the patient's frustration about their wait time. Having a clock available reassures them that their schedule will be all right. Be sure that there is an easy-to-find bathroom and that it is cleaned regularly. Look around in your waiting area for a trash receptacle - if you don't have one, get one. More progressive offices are providing Wi-Fi Internet access to guests in their waiting area - that's an effective way to ease the wait. Lastly, make sure that there are only neutral odors in your lobby.

3. Office processes. Certainly expectations are being set for your patients everywhere else they visit as a consumer that wait times will be short, so start there with a team focused on ways to improve the wait time experience. Measure the amount of time from check-in to callback and work to improve it. Wait time is a function of the reality of the actual time and the patients' expectations. A simple fix to improving wait time experience is to set proper expectations at check-in. Provide a narrow range of time that the patient should expect to be called back. By communicating that, on average, the wait is about “x” minutes today, you'll help the patient match their expectation with the reality of the situation. Further, if you are running over this time, a best practice is to call the patient back up to reception and explain that it should just be a few more minutes before they're called back. The key here is communication. Sit in your waiting area and listen to hear if you can overhear conversations from the office staff or even the exam rooms. Some simple sound-proofing materials can fix this pretty quickly.

This week, do a thorough assessment of your waiting area. Be objective. Then take action and improve your patients' experience.

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