Be a Patient: Observations From the Waiting Room

Assessing your office from the point-of-view of a patient can help you make the changes you need to see improvements in your practice.
patient experience

Just this week, I had to have bloodwork done for my annual physical. As I sat in the waiting room for this routine appointment, I thought about my experience as a patient. When thinking about changes to make in our practices, we often think about them as the doctor, or as our staff. How many of us put ourselves in the patients’ shoes and think about our practices from their point of view?

What did I learn from my experience about how we could make our offices more patient-friendly, more efficient, more streamlined, and provide an overall better experience? Let’s dive in! 

Online Scheduling
I LOVE being able to book an appointment online. For someone who spends most of her days on calls and Zooms, the last thing I want to do for myself is pick up the phone and make an appointment. If you look at my to-do list right now, there is actually a list of calls I need to make that keep getting pushed to the next day, and the next….and the next. If I could just handle it online, it would be done! 

When I went to make my appointment for my bloodwork, I was easily able to schedule myself online. I was able to pick my day, time, reason for the appointment, and enter in my insurance information. How many of us provide that service to our patients? I know there are downsides — patients scheduling themselves in the wrong spot, entering in wrong insurance information, relinquishing control of the schedule, etc. But what about the benefits?

According to Business Wire, 43% of patients prefer to book appointments online, and 34% of new patients were able to make an appointment outside of business hours. Twenty-six percent of appointments scheduled online were for the same or next day — what a great way to fill up empty spots!

One statistic that really opened my eyes to this is that the average phone call to schedule an appointment takes eight minutes. If you multiply this by how many appointments are scheduled by each staff member every day, I bet this number would shock you. With offices feeling understaffed and overwhelmed, the simple task of online scheduling can significantly free up your staff to do other things, and provide your patients with a high-tech introduction to your practice.

I Don’t Know
I was off to a great start for my visit — I was able to schedule myself online when it was convenient for me, and I received an automated text message and email reminding me of my appointment. However, when I got to the appointment, the technician that brought me back couldn’t find any record of the bloodwork that my doctor recommended. When I asked how this was possible and what to do, her answer was, “I don’t know.” Instead of being helpful, she walked me back out to the waiting room, pointed at a taped sign with the office fax number and said, “Call your doctor.” Because I had scheduled an early appointment, my doctor’s office was closed, so my options were to leave and reschedule my bloodwork, or sit and wait for my doctor’s office to open. I waited for a bit and called my doctor, who assured me the order was sent through, but they would send it again and also fax it over. I waited and waited and kept asking the technician to check, and her response was, “It can take a few hours for the fax to come through. I don’t know why.”  

While I understand the technicians were busy, this approach didn’t sit well with me. I watched people come and go for their appointments, spoke to my doctor’s office multiple times, and was assured the results were sent on their end.  

I’d love to banish the phrase “I don’t know” from optometry practices. It may very well be that the staff member doesn’t know the answer, but what are better ways to communicate this to the patient so they feel that someone cares about their needs? “I’m so sorry but I don’t see your bloodwork in our system. I’ve seen that before, and often having your doctor fax us the order will speed up the process. Here is a card with our fax number on it. I’ll check on you in a few minutes and see if they have arrived. My name is Sarah — I’ll be right back!”  

While the answer was really the same, the delivery makes all the difference.

Setting Matters
After wondering if my bloodwork order was arriving by pony express, I was finally brought back into the exam room. There was no mention of my long wait — just a point and a “sit there.” While I was waiting for the technician, I took a look around. 

The room, while clean, left a lot to be desired. There were sticky notes all over the desk and wall with different codes and notes, and the computer wires were taped together and to the floor. This got me thinking about our patients’ perceptions of our offices. How many of us use the front door when we arrive in the morning — or do we have a separate back entrance? If you typically enter in the back, I encourage you to walk in the front every few days. What do you see, smell, and hear? Is this the first impression you want your patients to have? We can often become immune to our own clutter and not see if after awhile.  Can we remove waiting room magazines that are ripped, torn, and three years old? Do staff members have piles of papers and post-it notes on their workstations? Are there pamphlets and brochures stacked everywhere? 

Walk in from a patient’s perspective, stand at the front desk, and sit in a waiting room chair. Is this the view and experience you want your patients to have? If not, let’s work together to make it reflective of the level of service we provide.

Making Changes for Our Patients
As I was on my way, I reflected on my experience. My usual blood draw office was closed for renovations, which is how I ended up at this office. While they are equidistant from my house, I knew I would not be returning to this location. I didn’t have a bad enough experience to email the company or post a review, but just knew I’d not return. 

How many of our patients feel this way about our offices? Can we make small changes in our flow, communication, and office feel to provide our patients with the experience we want them to have? The next time you are in an appointment as the patient, take a look around at what you see, hear, smell, and feel. This is my favorite exercise to bring changes and ideas home to my practice.

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