Unpleasant Waiting Area is Worse than Long Wait Times Finds 2019 Healthcare Pain Index

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By Patty Riskind

When seeking care, we all expect to be treated by competent healthcare professionals. But even if the quality of care is excellent, that may not be enough to make patients return. The results of Qualtrics 2019 Healthcare Pain Index study uncovered experiences outside of actual care delivery can significantly impact the overall patient experience.

Unpleasant waiting areas, unfriendly staff, perceptions that medical staff are not up to date on the latest treatments, and hidden costs topped the reasons a patient would stop visiting a specific provider or facility. Unpleasant waiting rooms were the single most cited reason to never return.

The waiting room experience varied by type of facility visited. In urgent care and primary care facilities, 29% cited unpleasant waiting areas as a reason never to return. Emergency rooms (ER) had 20% indicate unpleasant waiting rooms as a reason to go elsewhere.

A poor waiting room experience can lead to a poor overall experience

What’s more, the waiting room experience appears to influence how patients felt overall about their healthcare experience. People who found the waiting room at the ER unpleasant were 9 times more likely to be dissatisfied with their overall experience. Less extreme, but still significant, primary care patients were 5 times as likely and urgent care patients 4 times as likely to be dissatisfied, despite urgent care patients having a higher percentage who cited unpleasant waiting rooms as an issue.

People who found the waiting room at the ER unpleasant were 9X as likely to be dissatisfied with their overall experience.

Pain points varied by facility type. ER patients care more about price transparency and having confidence that the medical staff are up-to-date on current research and treatments – much more so than patients at an urgent care facility or primary care provider. ER patients cited price transparency as their number one reason for not returning to a specific ER, while patients at an urgent care facility ranked it 4th and primary care patients ranked it 8th out of 11 reasons not to return to a provider or facility.

At urgent care facilities, knowing a single clinician was in charge of their care was much more important to patients than at other facility types. Urgent care patients who worked with more than two medical personnel were twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their overall experience.

An unpleasant waiting room experience edges out long wait times and poor communication

Perhaps because patients feel like they don’t have a choice, but patients seemed willing to tolerate long wait times. In urgent care and ER facilities, only 11% said long wait times were a reason not to return. The number was even lower (6%) for primary care facilities – even though patients experience significantly long wait times. 

Half of ER and urgent care patients say they have waited over an hour to be seen within the last year and 21% of ER patients say they have waited over 4 hours to be seen. While long wait times might not be driving ER patients away, it might be one reason they are 9 times more likely to be dissatisfied overall if they find the waiting area unpleasant.

Urgent Care Patients are 3X more likely to not return to an urgent care facility because the waiting room was unpleasant, messy, or dirty than because of long wait times.

Poor communication is another area that nearly half of patients cited as a significant pain point in their healthcare experience, but very few said it would keep them from returning to a specific urgent care facility. The take-away: Appearance matters.  It is unfortunate patients even have to wait, so creating a clean, well lit, comfortable waiting environment reinforces to the patient that they, and their time, are important.  The appearance and cleanliness of the waiting area is easier to address and improve than coaching and changing human behavior.  Take a fresh look at your waiting room and ask yourself to evaluate the impression you are giving.  Know that your waiting room is your “front door” and creating a good first impression often directly impacts the overall patient experience.

Patty Riskind is Head of Global Healthcare for Qualtrics.

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