Patient Satisfaction + Wait Times: More Important than Anything Else

Any patient can tell that several things can determine whether he or she is happy with a visit to their doctor’s office.  Many factors play a role in patient satisfaction, including the level of care provided by the physician, staff friendliness, facility cleanliness, speediness of answering telephone calls, and wait times.  Wait time (time spent in both the waiting room and exam room before seen by a doctor) in particular is frequently cited as the single most important factor in determining patient satisfaction.  In fact, a national survey found that 40% of the variance in patient satisfaction can be explained by the amount of time a patient waits to see their doctor.

Some have argued and even research has shown that the negative effect of long waiting time “may be so pervasive that good physician care cannot make up for it.”  (Probst 1997).  In other words, a patient could immediately bond with staff, meaningfully connect with their physician in the first minute of a visit, and find the facility visually appealing (essentially, do everything right) and still have a patient walk away dissatisfied if they were significantly delayed in seeing their physician.  There is no magic number for an outpatient office visit but I understand that there is a dramatic drop-off in patient satisfaction when wait times reach 30 to 40 minutes.

When you mention “wait time”, most people can’t help but think about the emergency room.  (I mean who honestly hasn’t had a terrible night of waiting for what seemed like forever to see a doctor in an ER).  According to a 2009 research study by Press Ganey, the average time spent in the ED is four hours and seven minutes.  Some states are better than others.  Iowa is at an average of 175 minutes of wait time.  Conversely, Utah had an average of 847 minutes (about 8 hours).  For our state, Georgia ranks in the middle (32nd) at 249 minutes, according to Press Ganey.

It is inevitable there will be delays when seeing your doctor, particularly when in an ER.  For example, a doctor may be called in for an emergency or she have a number of high acuity patients that need more time to diagnosis than initially scheduled.   This doesn’t mean that we should throw our hands up in the air and declare that the rest of the day’s patients will walk away irate when 30+ minute delays.  Two things in particular can lessen the blow of a major appointment delay:

  • Doctors should spend more time with their patients in the exam room, particularly talking about nonmedical issues or psychosocial issues.  Patients want to feel cared for by their provider and any extra effort to connect with patients will go a long way in making them feel more important and satisfied.
  • Patients appear to be willing to wait longer for care as long as they are kept informed about the wait time.  Research shows that patients who received regular updates about delays in the ER gave higher patient scores than those who did not.  (My system, WellStar, has experimented with “patient liaisons,” front office staff who leave their desk to wait with the patients, continuously update them on their place in the queue, and man the phones.  From which, we have seen remarkable improvements in patient scores in the first month alone.)

As competition intensifies in the outpatient market, patient satisfaction is becoming an increasingly critical factor for sustaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace.  Correspondingly, physician offices and their staff would be wise to focus their energies on decreasing wait times before anything else.  While time management may not be traditionally thought of as that important by a doctor or her staff, don’t be fooled.  Your patients will thank you for it and reward you with another visit.

7 comments Add your comment

Bonnie Cech

September 11th, 2012
2:46 pm

Thanks for quantifying the significance of patient waits! While your example focuses on ERs, which have their unique challenges, 95% of patient visits in the outpatient setting are predictable. Why, then, do so many physicians and clinics struggle with the “running late” challenge? I believe it’s because we don’t have clear visibility into the visit process – we lack a quantifiable understanding of where the delays and inefficiencies occur, and what the underlying root causes for inefficiencies are for each provider. To understand this requires that we accurately track and analyze patient flow. Armed with the right information and tools, I’m always impressed with the improvements physicians and staff make to their processes to run on time and reduce patient waits (while at the same time improving productivity). While providing updates about the length of the wait can help reduce patient angst, I echo your conclusion. Long term patient satisfaction and retention is dependent on improving the patients’ experience – and it starts with reducing patient waits.

Marc Olsen - Executive, Hospital Administration

September 16th, 2012
2:23 pm

Thank you Bonnie for the comments! I do think you are absolutely right – much more can be done to provide visibility into the entire patient visit, not only for administrators but more importantly the entire staff. I think that all staff (front office, back office, etc), armed with the right information, could be a powerful force in improving the overall experience for patients.

Thanks for sharing!

Bonnie Cech

September 18th, 2012
3:29 pm

Mark – can you provide the source or link to the national survey that “found that 40% of the variance in patient satisfaction can be explained by the amount of time a patient waits to see their doctor” Thank you!

Marc Olsen - Executive, Hospital Administration

October 8th, 2012
1:16 pm

Sorry for my delay Bonnie. It can be found in the article, “Can Physicians Improve Satisfaction with Long Waiting Times?”, Feddock et al., Eval Health Prof 2005 28:40. Hope that helps!

Bonnie Cech

November 3rd, 2012
1:40 pm

Thank you, Mark!

vikas kumar

October 21st, 2013
8:08 pm

a2zdoc mobile application can reduce patient waiting time upto 70% .


November 23rd, 2013
6:28 am


I´m a swedish nurse student and I´m doing a study on waiting time at the doctor. Read your articel and I wonder what the study in full name is called that you reply to as research 2009. My questions is how long does a patient want to wait in a waiting room before seeing the doctor. Thank you in advance.

Best regards Monica