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The COVID-19 pandemic forced many doctor’s offices to rethink how waiting rooms are run, resulting in a better experience for many patients. Amanda Caroline da Silva/Getty Images
  • According to a new study, before the pandemic, the worst part of the doctor’s office was sitting in the waiting room for long periods of time.
  • Better appointment scheduling during the pandemic helped with waiting room time.
  • Some changes in the healthcare setting might stay post-pandemic.

One pre-pandemic occurrence that might stay in the past is the time you spent sitting in your doctor’s waiting room.

And people are happy about that.

According to a study by Yosi Health, nearly half of respondents (46 percent) claim that before the pandemic, the worst part about the doctor’s office was sitting in the waiting room for long periods of time.

Also, 30 percent of respondents said the best change their doctor’s office made since the pandemic is better appointment scheduling that cut back on waiting room holdups.

“By allowing patients to book their appointments online, and asking the patients to show up right at that time, clinics are now removing the wait time for patients… Clinics are now paying more attention to how long the patients waited. Now they have an incentive to reduce the wait time and not make the patients wait longer than they need to or be exposed to other patients,” Hari Prasad, health tech expert and CEO of Yosi Health, told Healthline.

The traditional waiting room experience often involved patients sitting with other patients, filling out forms on clipboards, touching kiosks, and other devices. But now those things are slowly going away, Prasad said.

“We are seeing an improvement to the digital experience of that patient as they start demanding more of these conveniences as a consumer,” he said.

Curbside care is one way providers embraced a new type of care.

Dr. David Berg, president and co-founder of Redirect Health, says that until the pandemic hit, physicians’ offices historically were not efficient at separating sick people from healthy people receiving annual exam services or procedures.

“In the early days of COVID-19, doctors and health systems had to invent ways of caring for people while minimizing their time in office. The car became the new exam room for some situations. And once insurance companies jumped on board and started paying the same amount for virtual visits at parity with in-office, the entire way we approached healthcare changed,” Berg told Healthline.

COVID-19 forced healthcare professionals to streamline aspects of their services quickly and remotely all while protecting patients’ privacy.

“Seemingly overnight, we were all laser-focused on people spending the least amount of time inside our clinics,” said Berg.

Pre-pandemic, you most likely scheduled an in-office visit and were seen by a doctor or went to an urgent care or emergency room and waited longer.

“In today’s new COVID-inspired system, more people are being seen virtually first and then are directed to the best place and level of care — all from the comfort of their home, work, or often while traveling,” Berg said.

Before COVID-19, a virtual experience at your doctor’s office was uncommon. Prasad noted that this may be because many clinics deal with shrinking reimbursements and increasing cost of care, both of which technology solutions have not typically helped them with.

“So [technology] was not one of the top priorities for clinics as they provide medical care to patients, but now with the pandemic, the wait time has exposed the risk of these waiting rooms, not just with the physical proximity of others,” he said.

Also, Berg says pre-pandemic providers who offered virtual services were not paid adequately by insurance companies or government payors.

“Seeing a change from in-office to virtual-first would have taken much longer if COVID-19 did not force the issue and speed up time. Just like how people juggling daycare and Zoom meetings accelerated exponentially, so did people learning how to appreciate a more efficient healthcare experience. All they needed to do was use the same technology they were using to communicate with loved ones — with the necessary privacy protections added,” he said.

As patients began experiencing care virtually, they became empowered consumers searching for digital adoptions of services, Prasad says.

“Especially when it comes to how patients meet with their physicians or clinics. That’s an area where we see significant improvement, especially with how patients are able to schedule online visits,” said Prasad.

Despite a liking for virtual and digital services, people still expect to have in-person visits with their doctors.

Yosi’s study showed that about 60 percent of respondents would be willing to go back to in-person visits and hope to.

“While we shifted to the online telehealth services, now we will also see a shift back to the traditional in-person visits,” Prasad said.

However, while people indicate that they want to see their doctors, they still expect waiting times to stay quick. The Yosi survey showed that people might switch their medical professionals if they are not offered the convenience and digital experiences to make their experience better, faster, and easier.

“There is a need for providers to step up and offer these conveniences not only for patient retention and loyalty but also to improve patient outcomes. Often, digital experiences improve outcomes,” Prasad said.

He envisions a merge of technology with in-person visits. He anticipates people willingly filling out forms and providing insurance information, ID cards, and credit card information online before they arrive.

“Now patients are becoming more aware that by using these services they can also reduce their wait time, so we do expect that patients will adopt more technology solutions to improve their own experiences,” he said.

Berg notes that a virtual first model will require state and federal legislation governing virtual healthcare.

For example, he points to House Bill 2454, the bipartisan measure that expanded access to telemedicine for people in Arizona, ensured that doctors receive equal compensation from insurance companies for virtual services, and allowed Arizonans to receive telemedicine services from out-of-state professionals.

“I can’t imagine any legislator wanting to take this away now that so many depend on virtual care for easy access to healthcare,” said Berg.

While Prasad sees healthcare professionals moving toward enabling patients to use personal devices, such as a phone or computer to cut down on waiting times, he recognizes that older patients and those who do not have access to devices may need other options.

“Solutions are evolving, so they are not app-based. This can make it easier for elderly patients, so that using an online system, not a smartphone system, can go a long way,” he said.

However, he notes that the pandemic helped some older patients become more tech-savvy.

“Elderly patients are more comfortable using an iPad from even a few years back because during the pandemic everyone started using it to connect with their friends and family. I believe that demographic will evolve over time with how they adapt to technology,” said Prasad.