2 May 2017

Understanding waiting time from perspective of patient’s psychology

Waiting time is an interesting phenomenon in healthcare. On one hand longer waiting time to meet a doctor can cause discontentment, very low or no waiting can rouse suspicion about the credibility of doctor. There is always a psychological aspect to waiting time, which most hospital manager seems to miss. Waiting time in hospitals are seen in direct link with customers’ satisfaction or dissatisfaction (check patient satisfaction feedback form), but to be better able to manage waiting time, we also need to understand how are they linked. 

There are certain features of waiting time that are crucial for determining whether or not customer gets dissatisfied with it. These features result out of patient’s psychology and attitude towards waiting time. If we can understand how patients perceive and get affected by waiting time, we can take necessary care to ensure that waiting time do not result in dissatisfaction. Below I have tried to describe the essential features, which if taken into consideration can enable better management of patients’ waiting time.

How patient wait is more important than how much do they wait?

When it comes to customer satisfaction, perception is more important than reality. Perception of waiting time depends upon the experience that patient goes through during waiting. For a patient standing in queue, 10 minutes of actual waiting may feel more burdensome than a patient who wait for 30 minutes in a posh waiting lounge with TV and magazines. So along with actual waiting time, it is important to assess, how do patient actually wait. Are their facilities to make patients comfortable while waiting? Can patients engage themselves in something that make their waiting time feel less? Do patients have to keep checking his/her status? These are few things that a hospital manager can assess to make experience of waiting less troublesome for patient. While, reducing actual waiting time definitely helps, having ways to improve the patient’s waiting experience can significantly prevent waiting related dissatisfaction.

Patients can differentiate between justified and unjustified waiting

Waiting time is more or less inversely proportional to per unit workload. With other things being common, a doctor seeing 10 patients in a day will have significantly less waiting time than the one with 50 patients a day. A nurse handling 5 discharges will take longer compared to nurse who has only 2 discharges. This fact is well realized by patients and they shape their waiting time expectation accordingly. For example, while waiting for an X-ray to be done, a patient will be more tolerant to waiting time when there are more number of patients compared to when there are few. In other words, a justified waiting is more acceptable than waiting due to inefficiency. So while absolute waiting time gives a gross idea about service efficiency and customer satisfaction, matching it with per unit workload of the period will give a more realistic picture. Hospitals may also have different threshold for waiting time during low volume, moderate volume and high volume of work.

Attitude towards waiting differs for different services in hospital

Not all waiting times in hospital cast similar effect on patient’s satisfaction. While patient may be willing to wait longer to consult the doctor, s/he may be disappointed if required to wait long for obtaining medicines or to pay bills. It is generally observed that patients have a higher threshold for waiting for things that are directly related to their core purpose of coming to hospital, and a lower threshold for those services that are considered supportive or administrative. So consultation with doctor, getting an investigation done, obtaining lab report or getting a clinical procedure done are things for which patient may not mind waiting little more than expected. On the contrary, things like registration, payment of bills, clearance for cashless treatment, buying medicines, admission formalities, completion of discharge process, etc. are things for which even minor increase from expected waiting time can put off the patients. This understanding of patients’ behaviour towards waiting time of different services can be used by hospital managers to prioritize services for which waiting time must be optimized.

Uncertain waiting time annoys more than long waiting time

Lastly, patients’ tolerance to waiting time significantly increases with prior and certain information about how much time are they expected to wait. By letting patients know that they will have to wait for, let’s say one hour to get their investigation reports, they are psychologically prepared to wait that long. In absence of this information patient may assume a specific waiting time on their own, which if not fulfilled, can make them restless. This simple act of letting know about expected waiting time can significantly improve customer’s perception towards hospital. However, there is a catch. If the actual waiting happened to be much longer than informed, it can do more harm than good. Hence hospital need to be efficient enough to rightly estimate the waiting time required for their various services. Also, this works well only up-to a limit. An unusually high waiting time can still cause dissatisfaction even if informed well in advance.


Waiting time for patients is a reality with which every good hospital is dealing with in their own manner. Understanding how patients perceive and get affected by waiting time can help managers in effectively managing it.

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