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11th March 2014 7 Ways To Take The Pain Out Of Waiting

In times of austerity there is often a requirement to reduce the number of staff in order to manage budgets. It is simple maths, but if there is not a corresponding reduction in workload or a change in the process, productivity will inevitably suffer. This is most acutely felt at the sharp end, with increased waiting times for patients.

Recent headlines such as ‘chaos in casualty departments’ and  ‘one in three trains have been delayed’ are depressingly familiar. People do not like to be kept waiting and although we British are supposedly renowned for our ability to queue, even we have our limits.

There is a proven relationship between delay, negative feelings and perception of service. If we are kept waiting we naturally become frustrated. Frustration is the fuel for aggression and so not surprisingly where there are delays there are also increased risks of aggression or violence for those at the ‘sharp end’.

Fortunately there are a number of relatively simple strategies we can use to take the pain out of waiting:

1.       Change Perception – There is real time and there is perceived time. Research has shown that when queuing people’s perception of time is accurate…for the first minute and a half! After that they tend to overestimate how long they have been waiting. Think of ways you can alter that perception of time by keeping your patients distracted or entertained. There is a reason T.V.’s, reading material and children’s toys are all often strategically placed in waiting rooms.

2.       Mingle – When it was suggested to rail staff that a way to reduce assaults was to actually mingle and engage with the commuters who were subject to delays there was some understandable reluctance. Who would want to walk amongst people who were angry and frustrated, wearing a uniform which identified you as the train company personified. Particularly as many of those staff had been assaulted and abused by those same commuters. With some understandable reluctance the staff  tried it and guess what…it worked. Not only were staff able to keep people informed they were seen to be ‘in it together’. They were also able to apologise and offer reassurance to passengers before they became too angry to reason with.

3.       Keep People Informed – Even if you haven’t got the resources to have a member of staff mingle, you can still keep people informed. A friend was telling me how she once attended A&E with her child who was in pain. She was kept waiting for what seemed like hours. Not only was she frustrated but so too were the other patients. She told me you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. The tension in the waiting room was palpable. At this point a nurse entered the room, apologised to the people waiting and explained that the department had earlier admitted a seriously ill child with meningitis who they were desperately trying to treat, hence the reason for the delay…the tension vanished in an instant!

4.       Make Sure the Process is Understood – Another mother who I was told about, attended the x ray department of the local hospital with her child. Staff could see she was agitated but didn’t want to approach her in case she became aggressive…so they ignored her and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the staff had taken the time to speak to her they would have discovered that the woman’s frustration was caused by her belief that other people entering the waiting room after her were going ahead of her in the queue. No one had thought to explain that there were three x ray machines in the department, only one of which was suitable for her daughter’s head injury. The people going ahead of her were using the other two machines. All of the drama could have been avoided through better verbal communication, written information or even a change to the room layout.

5.       Create the Illusion of Progress – I recently attended A&E and anticipated a long wait. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to be seen almost immediately (triage). I was then asked to wait in the waiting room and after about a 30 – 45 minute wait my name was called. I was told to follow the blue line which I did to find myself in a smaller waiting room which was actually in the A & E department. Once again I waited for a similar length of time before being shown into a screened off cubicle. Once more I waited before I was finally seen by the doctor. It was only afterwards I realised that I had been ‘played’ in a very clever way. Not only did the process create the illusion that I was progressing through the system much faster than I actually was, but it also reduced the number of people crowded into a single space.

6.       Consider the Environment – I recall reading about a company who had offices in a tall high rise building who were continually receiving complaints from staff that the lifts were too slow and as a result staff were becoming increasingly frustrated and bad tempered. Tenders were invited and all of the quotes were in the region of hundreds of thousands of pounds…except one. That quote was for just several thousand pounds. At first the Managing Director was inclined to dismiss it, but then intrigued and with so much money at stake he contacted the company who had submitted the proposal and asked how they could possibly replace an entire lift system for only several thousand pounds. The answer was simple, they didn’t…rather they suggested, a better solution would be to change the décor and add other distractions like potted plants, artwork, pleasant music etc to make the lobby a much more pleasant place to be. The solution was adopted and guess what…once again it worked. The complaints stopped.

7.       Change the Process – At the risk of stating the obvious the simplest way of taking the pain out of waiting is to take away the waiting. Virtual queuing is one example of this, where a customer is given a ticket stamped with the time they are required to return. In the meantime the customer is free to wander off, visit the café or other area of interest and provided they return on time they then go straight to the front of the queue.  This is one example but staffing rotas, operating times, protocols and procedures could all be critically examined to identify ways of avoiding or reducing long waits.