It’s Time for Health Systems to Reimagine the Waiting Room Experience

By Robert DiFalco, Chief Technology Officer,
Twitter: @BrightMD_Health

If there’s one thing patients haven’t missed about the healthcare experience during the pandemic, it’s the waiting room. The widespread use of telehealth–including video calls, asynchronous care, or secure messaging exchanges between providers and patients–has meant fewer trips to the doctor’s office and less time idly looking through magazines in the waiting room.

With patients beginning to access more routine care, face-to-face visits, and elective surgeries, the idea of a crowded waiting room, with people sitting elbow to elbow sharing germs, seems more anachronistic than ever. Waiting room crowding is at its peak during the cold and flu season, when people seek treatment from an ER, or outpatient settings like an urgent care or walk-in clinic, and spend time filling out forms. This will be worsened if COVID-19 becomes an endemic flu alongside seasonal viruses.

A Qualtrics 2019 survey found that an unpleasant waiting room experience was the top reason patients would not return to a healthcare facility–whether it be primary care, emergency rooms or urgent care. Now is the time for health systems to reimagine the waiting room and intake experience to make it more convenient—even pleasant—for both the patient and provider.

But this doesn’t mean creating a so-called virtual waiting room is the solution. This means giving patients the tools to handle intake and prepare for their appointment on their own time. Sending them a link to complete an online pre-visit interview that collects their chief complaint and symptoms ahead of their appointment means they can answer common questions and fill out forms on their own terms. Regardless of which venue the patient ultimately receives care—in-person or from their home—they can feel confident that they’ve shared all of their details with their doctor ahead of their appointment.

When this comprehensive pre-visit interview is completed by patients, it should be integrated into the EHR and automatically formatted so that the provider has it in their existing workflow to look over ahead of the appointment. This gives providers more control of their time between appointments, empowering them to practice at the top of their license and spend more time delivering quality care and building relationships with their patients. In many cases a pre-visit interview can collect enough information for a SOAP note, thus reducing the documentation burden on the provider and improving the detail and quality of the billable note as well.

Health and hospital systems should conduct an evaluation of their digital tools as new hybrid care models that combine in-person care with effective telehealth experiences become the norm. Using asynchronous technology, health systems can automate clinical intake, significantly reducing the need to keep patients in a waiting room, improving the pre-visit experience, and reducing the documentation burden to make an appointment more valuable for both patient and provider. This can be most effectively used for hundreds of chronic and low-acuity conditions, like asthma, sinus issues, cuts and bruises, UTIs, colds, and bronchitis.

From the comfort of their home, a patient suffering from a skin rash can use their smartphone to electronically submit all of the intake and preliminary examination information needed—which is also linked to their medical history—to their doctor, who can then review the information and provide the patient with a diagnosis and treatment plan. That same patient, who otherwise would have needed to commute to and from their doctor’s office and spend valuable time in the waiting room, has received effective treatment and is more likely to be satisfied with the experience.

Using digital technologies to automate clinical intake and ease the documentation burden lets software do the heavy lifting of handling administrative tasks for both the patient and provider.

Being in a waiting room makes patients feel frustrated, less in control, unsure of how long they’ll have to wait—and often means they rush through the important time they do have with their provider. Using digital tools that move this experience to a virtual environment puts patients more in control of their healthcare journey, and their time.

Patients are looking for more predictability, convenience, and ease of use from the healthcare system, in addition to clinically excellent care. Phone trees, repetitive intake questions, and germy waiting rooms won’t meet those expectations. Using virtual tools and automating clinical intake and documentation can not only make their experience more satisfying, but make it more likely health systems can retain them as patients and generate greater patient lifetime value.