Patient wait times are a growing problem in healthcare, but most physicians underestimate the problem. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of doctors believe wait times have “no impact” or “minimal impact” on their ability to retain patients, according to a survey from Software Advice.

But data across healthcare contradicts the view that lengthy wait times aren’t an issue. Let’s review the research about patient wait times and how physicians and health systems can address this growing challenge.

Patient wait times are getting longer

Patient wait times can refer to the time it takes to get an appointment and the minutes (or hours) patients spend in the waiting area or exam room before a visit. Both kinds of waiting negatively impact patients and reflect a healthcare system under increasing strain.

There are lots of statistics about patient wait times, but every doctor should know two numbers:

  • 26 days is the time it takes to get in to see a new physician in the U.S., averaged across specialties. That 2022 number is up from 21 days in 2004 when Merritt Hawkins first started surveying physicians about appointment wait times. 
  • 20 minutes is how long patients spend waiting to see a provider after arriving for their appointment. 

How do wait times impact patients? 

Most people won’t be surprised that long wait times negatively impact patient satisfaction. About a quarter of patients say they have changed providers specifically to avoid long wait times, and the same number say they’ve discouraged friends or family from seeing a provider because the wait was too long.

But extended wait times impact more than a medical practice’s reputation. Evidence showing connections between scheduling delays and patient health outcomes has led some experts to call long patient wait times a “public health disaster.”

Consider the following conclusions from published research, which indicate that long wait times can significantly impact patient health.

“Delays in medical care may increase morbidity and mortality risk among those with underlying, preventable, and treatable medical conditions.”

Preventative Medicine Reports, 2022

“People often avoid seeking medical care even when they suspect it may be necessary…. Avoiding medical care may result in late detection of disease, reduced survival, and potentially preventable human suffering.” 

Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2015

“Long wait times may also directly and indirectly reduce patient adherence to recommended treatment.” 

Journal of Oncology Practice, 2014

Physicians overwhelmingly care about their patients, but few see connections between long wait times and patient outcomes. Knowing that long waits impact patient outcomes can motivate physicians and healthcare leaders to take practical steps to solve the problem.

How to reduce patient wait times

When thinking about how to reduce patient wait times, it’s helpful to distinguish between a productivity focus and an efficiency focus.

Talking about productivity focuses on individual providers, encouraging them to produce results more efficiently and effectively. This approach is limited because it ignores systemic changes that address the root causes of long wait times in healthcare.

Still, focusing on productivity empowers doctors to make positive changes immediately. Productivity improvements – whether improving team delegation or using medical dictation to streamline documentation – translate to clinical efficiencies that can increase patient throughput and reduce delays.

In the long run, addressing long wait times requires medical practices and hospitals to improve efficiency by making process changes. Studies have shown that targeted process improvements like revising patient flow or optimizing skills utilization of all team members can increase clinical efficiency by nearly 50% while improving patient satisfaction and healthcare team wellbeing.

Regarding healthcare system efficiency, experts point to two opportunities to reduce patient wait times.

The first is to get savvier about inventory management. While other consumer industries (like airlines and hotels) carefully manage and market their inventory (unbooked seats, unfilled beds), roughly 20% of providers’ time is wasted due to last-minute cancellations and rescheduling.

The second opportunity is to include advanced practice providers (APPs) to allow physicians to practice at the top of their licenses. Just one-third of large health systems use APPs, but those that do see dramatic increases in patient availability.

Long wait times reflect systemic problems that healthcare is grappling with. But individual providers and small medical practices can still take steps to address the issue. This article provides specific tips for providers and clinics ready to reduce patient wait times.

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