As we move through each point of contact that a typical patient has with your practice during a visit, let’s consider the time spent waiting for service. This is an extremely important aspect of the patient experience in your office. People naturally value their time very much and an organization that wastes it is not regarded in a positive manner. Health care has fallen into a situation where causing patients to wait has become the norm, but it would be a mistake for an optometrist to assume that waiting is acceptable.
Developing a track record where patients have little or no waiting can create a huge competitive advantage for your practice. It builds patient loyalty very quickly and results in more word-of-mouth recommendations. The cost to implement this valuable characteristic is zero. When a wait is unavoidable, we should go to some effort to make it pleasant.
If we are going to look at the waiting experience, let’s consider these four basic ways most practices make patients wait.
Initial wait before an exam. This is right after check-in. Typically, the staff is preparing some paperwork or entering data into the EHR system. A clinical technician is needed to start the exam and may need to review the previous exam data and history.
Internal wait after pretesting. After the pretest work-up, the patient is ready but the doctor may not be. How long is this wait in an exam room and what does the patient do to pass the time?
Waiting for dilation. In many cases, pupils are dilated after the doctor sees the patient and it can take 30 minutes or more for the drug to take effect. The patient could select frames and have lenses designed, but there is often more waiting.
Waiting for dispensing service. This is generally on a separate visit to pick up new glasses or to get a frame adjustment, but these visits are usually not by appointment. When a patient drops in for optical service, how long is the typical wait and how comfortable is it?
When all these aspects are combined, we can see that optometric practices can force a lot of waiting. But many of the activities that cause the wait can be done differently in order to reduce the wait.
Review Your Resources
Depending on your office design, you may have a separate reception area with seating or you may have seating integrated into your optical. Some offices have a separate inner waiting area for dilation or to accommodate a short wait for a room to become available.
Consider these ways to make waiting more tolerable:
Free Wi-Fi for patients to use their devices.
Easily accessible power outlets for recharging.
Tethered tablets with video games.
Cable TV tuned to a food network or HGTV with close captioning and low volume.
A self-serve coffee, tea, hot cocoa bar.
A working fireplace.
A fish aquarium.
Nice décor with comfortable seating.
A selection of current magazines that are not the usual.
An easily accessible washroom with an infant changing table.
Extreme cleanliness. What would you find if you looked at the baseboards in the corners of your reception area?
Review Your Financial Investment
Remodeling your reception area is a very smart investment. This first impression of your office sets the tone for patient satisfaction, future referrals and increased spending. Consider hiring a commercial interior designer to help with colors, materials, flooring and window treatments. You may want to carry this decorating project into the optical as well. Choose some of the features listed above and invest in them also.
Review Your Process
Review the following points with your team at a staff meeting.
Discuss waiting for service and how that makes people feel. What wait times are acceptable in a doctor’s office? What wait times would impress patients?
What is your average wait time for the four types of waiting listed in the first section above?
Do you record the actual arrival time of each patient? Would that information be of use to doctors and staff?
How can you shorten the wait?
Discuss proactively notifying patients when a wait is longer than usual.
Should a staff member ever say “I’m sorry” if a wait is long? (Hint: the answer is yes).
Can the doctor and staff be flexible? Discuss examples, such as: if no technician is available, can the doctor take a patient without pretesting? Or, if the doctor has two or three patients at one time, could one of them be dilated earlier than usual?
Where is your bottleneck? What part of your process most often causes a delay? Is the pretest room tied up? Is there no tech available? Do you need another exam room? Is the doctor taking too long?
Waiting times are made more complicated when a patient arrives very early or very late for an appointment. Train your staff to mention the time to the patient in a nice way at check-in and prepare the patient honestly if a wait is expected. Also, train the front desk team to inform patients about free Wi-Fi, coffee or any other amenities available. An office manager or staff coordinator must be vigilant about supervising and directing other staff members who may be working on projects that are not as urgent as taking care of a patient.