Foster good patient relations by minimizing wait times

July 9, 2010

In most patient satisfaction surveys related to the medical practice setting, patients' main concern is long wait times. Even though a long wait time is not likely to be the main complaint in a lawsuit, it does not endear the doctor to the jury. A proactive approach and communication are key.

Key Points

A physician client relayed this story to me: "The patient barged into my office as I was on the phone and threatened to sue me because he had been waiting four hours. I said politely that the hospital called because one of my patients was in critical condition and I have to deal with the critical ones first."

Four hours? Unless the patient lives 3.5 hours away and has no cell phone, there is no excuse-in the office or in the courtroom-for making a patient wait that amount of time.

PATIENTS HATE TO WAIT

In most patient satisfaction surveys related to the medical practice setting, patients' main complaint is long wait times. In one survey, patients waiting 10 or fewer minutes rated their satisfaction as "good" to "very good." Another survey concluded that punctual patients are annoyed if they have to wait 37 minutes to see the physician. If you make a patient wait a long time to see you, you are telling the patient that you do not value his or her time.

The good news is that wait time is not likely to show up as the major complaint in a lawsuit. Some cases exist, however, in which plaintiff attorneys claimed that the brief time a doctor spent with a patient contributed to the physician's failure to diagnose and/or treat. Appointment books even have been allowed as evidence.

Because a malpractice lawsuit requires departure from the standard of care and damages, a long wait will not constitute an allegation unless the patient's condition was triaged, deteriorated while waiting, and should have been noticed. A more typical occurrence is that some departure from the standard of care or a bad result, and subsequent frustration, lead a patient to seek an attorney. In such cases, the patient's report about the long wait time will not endear you to the jury.

To avoid long patient waits before patients arrive in the office:

To prevent or defuse the anger of patients waiting in the office:

The author is a health law attorney in Mt. Kisco, New York, and a Medical Economics editorial consultant. Malpractice Consult deals with questions on common professional liability issues. Unfortunately, we cannot offer specific legal advice. If you have a general question or a topic you would like to see covered here, please send it to medec@advanstar.com.