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Lessons from Waiting Rooms


According to a 2010 survey, the average wait time in a general practitioner’s office is about 20 minutes. And according to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, most people think that’s too long.

The fact is, people hate waiting. Whether at the post office or in a doctor’s office, the longer the wait, the lower the chance that a customer—or in this case, patient—will leave satisfied, and the less likely he’ll return when given the choice.

Knowing that, many doctors do their best to improve their scheduling, eliminate waits as much as possible, and streamline their practice efficiency. But there are other ways to address patients’ waiting room concerns that are not only easier, but more effective.

Make the Wait Feel Productive

“Queuing psychologists”—people who study the phenomenon of waiting in lines—say that it’s the perception of the wait that matters more than the actual wait time. According to research performed at MIT, “Consumers consider waiting as inactive, wasted or lost opportunity time… Therefore, to attain higher levels of customer satisfaction firms should focus on making customers feel that they are wasting as little time as possible.”

In other words, the solution is not just to reduce the wait time from 20 minutes to 15, but to do a better job of distracting people during those 20 minutes.

Airlines are the masters of this. In addition to padding arrival times so you get in “early” more often than not, a number of studies have shown that flyers are happiest when they have a long walk from the gate to baggage claim. If it only takes one minute for a passenger to walk to baggage claim but 10 minutes for her bags come out, she has spent 90 percent of her time waiting. But, if it takes five minutes to walk to baggage claim, then only 50 percent of her time represents waiting. This small change makes a big difference in how the productive their wait is perceived.

Lessons from Other Industries

Unoccupied time is perceived as wasted, but occupied time is perceived as productive. The trick, then, is to make your patients feel productive. With that in mind, I looked at some other industries for ideas on how to improve satisfaction when it comes to long waits.

Hair salons: Offer customers a hot beverage.

It takes several minutes for tea to steep or to brew fresh coffee, plus another 10 or 15 minutes to drink it. By the time a patient is called into the exam room, he probably hasn’t finished his drink. This leaves him with the perception that he didn’t have enough time, rather than too much. Plus, the patient will be warming up from the cold, waking up in the morning, or de-stressing. All of this adds value, and for just a few dollars a day.

Cost: $5/day

Theme parks: Overestimate the wait time.

One of the principles of waiting is that we hate it when we expect a short wait and then get a long one. So, for decades, Disney theme parks have been telling “guests” that the wait to get to the ride is longer than it actually is. You can do the same thing: if you’re running 15 minutes behind, have the front office staff tell the patient it will be a 25-minute wait. That way they can manage their wait accordingly, and then, when you get them in early, they’re pleasantly surprised.

Cost: $0

Deli counters: Take a number.

According to an article in Harvard Business Review, people value transparency more than short wait times. On some level, this is impractical to apply in a doctor’s office–privacy concerns being what they are, you can’t show your patients what’s going on behind the scenes in the same way Subway lets you watch them making your (and everyone else’s) sandwich. But you can use the “take a number” technique, listing your patients’ first names and last initials so they can see where they are in the queue.

Cost: A few hundred dollars for a monitor and software to implement.

Airports: Give people somewhere to shop.

Doctors have different real estate challenges than airports do, but you can still do this, and it kills two birds with one stone. By having a retail area of your waiting room–somewhere people can browse for products that they might need in relation to your medical specialty–you’re able to increase revenues and keep your patients entertained at the same time. This tactic won’t work equally well for all medical specialties, but optometrists are already doing it, and it could be particularly effective for, say, dentists, physical therapists, orthopedists or dermatologists. Most practices should be able to find something to sell, even if it’s just books.

Costs: Display space and inventory; offset by revenue.

Auto service: Get a newspaper subscription.

It sounds so obvious. After all, most doctors offices are already overrun with magazines–and some of those magazines are even current–but it’s shocking how few have a daily newspaper subscription. People value current information more than outdated info, so many people would prefer to read a newspaper than a magazine. In the end, it’s best to offer a variety of newspapers and magazines to suit everyone’s tastes. It’s also good to keep the magazines current–remove magazines that are torn or older than three months.

Cost: $300/yr.

Restaurants: Coloring pages for kids.

Pediatricians know how to cater to children, but other doctors should pay attention to this one, too. Crayola’s website has coloring pages for kids (including several that are educational about the human body), and you can buy a four-pack of crayons from a restaurant supply store for just a few cents per box. If a patient walks in with their child, this is a cheap, easy way to keep the kid entertained and make the wait less frustrating.

Cost: $0.10/child.

Coffee shops: Free Wi-Fi.

A reliable Wi-Fi connection is a nice bonus for customers who want to get some work done or entertain themselves while waiting.

Cost: Varies, but plans typically start at $50/mo.

Call centers: Call them back.

Some call centers, knowing that people hate waiting on hold, give customers the option of receiving a call back when an agent is available. You can do the same thing. If you anticipate a long wait and there are other things to do just outside your office nearby (like grab a cup of coffee), offer to call or send the patient a text message when the room becomes available, so they can leave the office and come back when you’re ready for them.

Cost: $0

Bars: Get a TV?

Interestingly, there’s some evidence that installing a television may actually backfire. A Dutch study in 1994 discovered that people who watched television in the waiting room of a doctor’s office perceived the time as longer, not shorter. This could be because we’re keenly aware of how long a TV show lasts, so when the commercial breaks start to add up, patients start to feel like the time has been wasted. Still, some people prefer watching TV to reading or the other ideas mentioned in this article, so this is worth considering.

Cost: Varies, but basic flat-screen TVs and DVD players are inexpensive.

In the end, remember that it’s the perception of the wait, not the wait itself, that makes the difference. Give people the experience that they’re doing something useful with their time, and they’ll be happier than if you had cut the wait time in half.

Images created by: comedy_nose

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About the Author

David Kassin Fried has been a freelance writer since 2006, specializing in corporate communications, business growth and development, technical documentation and more. In addition to his work as a business writer, David is a published author, a produced screenwriter and playwright, and an accomplished actor.

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