“Papa! Where donut?” asks my 2½ year-old sitting with her legs dangling and hands folded in a bustling Starbucks. We’ve been waiting for 8 minutes and we’ve reached her limit of tolerance. She’s unimpressed by the queued customers who compliment her curly blonde hair, many of whom have come and gone since we’ve been waiting. I agree – how long does it take to pour a kiddie milk and grab a donut? We can both see it in the case right there!
No one likes to wait. Truly, one of the great benefits of the modern world is that wait times are now incredibly short. Many Starbucks customers, unlike my daughter, ordered their drink ahead and waited exactly 0 minutes to get their drink. What about Amazon? I ordered a bird feeder this morning and it’s already hanging in the yard. It’s still daylight. Feel like Himalayan Momo Dumplings tonight? Your food could arrive in 37 minutes. The modern wait standard has been set impossibly high for us.
Yes,for some. We created a whole room just for waiting. Airlines call theirs “The Platinum Executive Lounge.” Ours is “The waiting room.”
Excess waiting is a significant reason why health care gets beat up in reviews. We’re unable to keep up with the new expectations. Waiting is also a significant cause of distress. Many patients report the most difficult part of their cancer diagnosis was the waiting for results, not the treatment. It’s because when under stress, we are hardwired to take action. Binding patients into inaction while they wait is very uncomfortable.
Fortunately, the psychology of waiting is well understood and there are best practices that can help. First, anxiety makes waiting much worse. Conveying confidence and reassuring patients they are in the right place and that everything will be OK makes the wait time feel shorter for them. Uncertainty also compounds their apprehension. If you believe the diagnosis will be melanoma, tell them that at the time of the biopsy and tell them what you expect next. This is better than saying, “Well, that could be cancer. We’ll see.”
Knowing a wait time is also much better than not. Have your staff advise patients on how much longer they can expect before seeing you (telling them they’re next isn’t as effective). Advise that test results should be back by the end of next week. Of course, under promise and over deliver. When the results are back on Tuesday, you’ve got a pleased patient.
Explaining that you had to add in an urgent patient helps. Even if it’s not your fault, it’s still better to apologize. For example, the 78 highway, the left anterior descending artery to our office, has been closed because of a sinkhole this month (not kidding). I’ve been apologizing to a lot of patients saying that all our patients are arriving late, which is putting us behind. As they can envision the linear parking lot that used to be a highway, it helps.
Lastly, as any child can tell you, waiting has to not only be, but to also appear, fair. The only thing worse than waiting for an appointment, or donut, is seeing someone who came in after you get their donut before you do. If you’re pulling both Mohs and cosmetics patients from the same waiting area, then your surgery patients will see a lot of patients come and go while they are sitting. Demarcating one sitting area for Mohs and one for clinics might help. So does ordering ahead. I’d show my daughter how to use the app so we don’t have to wait so long next week, but she’s 2 and I’m quite sure she already knows.
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.