This week I jumped on the phone with a handful of Australian patients to find out what they thought about typical general practice waiting rooms. We dived into what they liked and didn’t like, and discussed how they thought general practices could better improve the overall waiting room experience.

Describe your typical waiting room experience

A 25 year old male from Carlton, VIC, who suffers from ongoing asthma shared, “One of the clinics I go to it takes about 40 – 45 minutes after the actual appointment time to get in to see a doctor”. He went on to speculate, “I think it’s because the clinic overbooks to get as much money as they can from the government. I assume because it’s all bulk billed”.

A 52 year old male from Craigieburn, VIC, was a little more understanding. “If it’s a busy practice it’s generally less than positive because of the waiting time, but I do understand that. It’s good if I’m seen on time, but I’m always prepared with a puzzle book or something”.

A 31 year old female from St Ives, NSW, who suffers from anemia agreed that it was up to the patient to be tolerant. “I generally wait for 10 – 20 minutes, but I understand they’ve got things to do so it doesn’t bother me”.

It was a 72 year old woman from Golden Beach, QLD, who provided practices with the most praise. “[I tend to have] an excellent experience. I think the longest I’ve ever waited was about 11 minutes”.

Still, across the board most patients were in the mindset that they were waiting too long to see their doctor. When I asked how they believed practices could improve waiting rooms, there were a range of answers, but most pointed the finger to better communication.

What can practices do when long wait times are expected?

A 48 year old woman from NSW described, “In most waiting rooms I usually find that the communication is really poor and I don’t always trust what I’m being told when I go up to the desk. So, I might go up to the desk and they’ll say, ‘Oh it will only be another ten minutes’. But I know it won’t be because there are 15 other people in the room and they all got there before you. I think it would help if they were a bit more honest about the wait times. Even if they had a sign-in sheet, so I knew my place in queue”.

A 51 year old man from NSW shared a similar view, “I think an acknowledgement that you’ve been waiting and that [the doctor is] running 20 minutes late or half an hour late would be nice. It’s never five minutes… it is three quarters of an hour… it is an hour. And you sort of think you’ve been forgotten”.

A 69 year old male from Kellyville, NSW, who had recently battled cancer described, “It would just be nice if they got up and said, I’m sorry there’s been a delay. You know? Just gave me some feedback. Rather than just processing the bookings and taking credit cards. It would be nice if they were in tune with people”.

A 52 year old male from VIC agreed but was a little more understanding, “Just advise me of the current wait time, which can be flexible. Perhaps, even have a notification up, or put a notification on the board, saying that sometimes appointments fall behind. I get it. It’s unavoidable. Sometimes they have to triage. You know? If someone comes in unexpectedly and it is a more serious nature”.

Although he did describe, “If the clinic is in the local area and they’re running an hour behind, I wouldn’t mind getting an SMS or something, rather than each and every patient ringing up the practice to see how the doctors are traveling”.

Aside from reducing wait times, how can practices improve waiting rooms?

Getting away from wait times, I asked patients what other things they thought could be improved in waiting rooms. Two respondents said they would love to see more available power points so they could work on their laptop or charge their phone whilst waiting. One middle aged male shared, “I do like it when they have some kind of TV monitor up and running, even if the sound is down but you can watch the bylines go across”.

Surprisingly, all respondents made comment on the quality of magazines, which they described as “ripped and torn” and “old and boring”. A male in his sixties described, “[I don’t like] the choice of magazines – they’re all women’s magazines”. A 51 year old male said the same thing. “Some decent reading material would be good. Something other than Women’s Weekly”.

Patients across the board also said they liked children’s areas. A 48 year old NSW woman honestly described, “[My doctor] has a little children’s room, which is great because they corral them all in the same place away from me”.

A 51 year old Melbourne male offered a slightly more optimistic take on the same point, “I do like it when they have a kiddy corner, even though my kids are well beyond that stage. Something to divert the attention of the little ones is good” He went on to describe that he was a little less fond of the “drab colours on the walls… and dim lighting”.

Would you prefer to check-in with a touch-screen kiosk, mobile app, or in-person at the desk?

I then asked each of the respondents how they would like to check-in if given the choice between a touch-screen kiosk, a mobile app or in-person at the desk. The 25 year old male from Melbourne shared, “A mobile option would be great so I can check-in before I get there, and if it showed me the wait times, then I could preempt how long I was likely to wait”

A 31 year old woman also turned to technology. Although she cited slightly different reasons, “A touch-screen would be great. At least it means you’re not going to get a nasty receptionist”.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t just millennials who turned to technology. A 48 year old woman from NSW described, “I’m the world’s cheapest person when it comes to apps, but I would pay for that app. That way I have a number too, so I can see where I am in queue”.

A 53 year old woman from WA shared a similar view, choosing a touch-screen kiosk as her choice. Not surprisingly, those in their 60s and 70s sided with an in person check in at reception. A 69 year old male cited his reason being because “it’s more personal”.

The Takeaway

The biggest takeaway I got from the interviews was the importance of communication from front desk staff. Across the board, patients were okay with waiting, so long as reception staff acknowledged their presence and provided them with an approximate wait time. Additionally, patients were keen on the idea of knowing their exact place in queue so they weren’t left wondering if they had been forgotten.