Using Big Data to End “Hurry Up and Wait”

When a patient is late for an appointment, the effects ripple through the waiting room. A new study suggests ways to avoid this problem.

Using Big Data to End “Hurry Up and Wait” click to enlarge Shona Hang, MSPH

Visiting a pediatric clinic can be a stressful experience for any family. It’s even more frustrating when a parent frantically rushes to get to an appointment on time - often missing work and pulling their child out of school for the day -  only to wait while the clinic is seeing a patient who arrived late for an earlier appointment.   

The experience may suggest it’s not important to be punctual for the next visit - after all, if a family is going to wait anyway, what’s the hurry?

The problem, of course, is late arrival for visits affect every child’s care. By arriving late for visits, schedules get backed up so the parents get anxious, children get impatient, and clinic staff feel rushed. 

Consequently, clinics everywhere try to reduce wait times - but at UNC Children’s, we take things a little further. 

We try to determine whether a family will  be late - perhaps even before the family heads to the clinic.

Shona Hang, MSPH, led a team of UNC researchers to look at data from more than 65,000 clinic visits over two years.  They reviewed information about demographics, distance traveled to the hospital, attendance records, and many other factors.  They also looked at different specialty clinics, appointments on different days of the week,times of the day, and so on. 

The research yielded interesting results.  For example, the best predictor of a family being late for this appointment is if they have been late for previous appointments. The study also suggested that appointments on Monday and Tuesday morningswere the hardest for families to get to on time.  

Hang’s colleagues are reaching out to families who have been late for appointments to learn more about their situation and what supports might be helpful.  This research may help the clinics develop systems to put families in the best possible position to arrive on time or devote more resources when late arrivals are most likely to happen.

Meantime, there are a few steps parents can take to reduce wait times for everyone.  The first step is obvious: arrive on time.

A useful plan may be to start at the appointment time and work backwards through each step involved to get to the clinic- know the location of the clinic, anticipate how much time it may take to park, think about traffic at the time of day, and so on.  Give yourself enough time to get everything done. UNC’s call center is a valuable resource for this kind of information.

Parents who discover they are running late should call the clinic to let the staff know - it may give them time to figure out a way to accommodate you more quickly.

Finally, remember the people who have appointments scheduled after you. Please don’t be discouraged if the last appointment had a long wait time.  Share the experience with the provider and staff so the clinic can learn and improve.

“Nobody wants to wait more than they have to,” said Hang. “Especially when it comes to your child’s health.”