Framework for analyzing wait times and other factors that impact patient satisfaction in the emergency department

J Emerg Med. 2011 Dec;41(6):686-92. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2011.01.018. Epub 2011 Mar 25.


Background: Wait times and patient satisfaction are important administrative metrics in emergency departments (EDs), as they are critical to return patronage, liability, and remuneration. Although several factors have been shown to impact patient satisfaction, little attention has been paid to understanding the psychology of waiting and patient satisfaction.

Objective: We utilize concepts that have been applied in other service industries to conceptualize factors that impact patient satisfaction. We focus on wait times, a key factor in patient satisfaction, and describe how these concepts can be applied in research and daily practice.

Discussion: Patient satisfaction can be conceptualized as the difference between a patient's perceptions and their expectations. Perception is the psychological process by which an individual understands and interprets sensory information. Changes in the wait experience can decrease the perceived wait times without a change in actual wait times. Other changes such as improved staff interpersonal and communication skills that provide patients with an increased sense of the staff's dedication as well as a greater understanding of their care, can also affect patient perceptions of their care quality. These changes in patient perception can synergize with more expensive investments such as state-of-the-art facilities and increased ED beds to magnify their impact on patient satisfaction. Expectation is the level of service a patient believes they will receive during their ED visit. Patients arrive with expectations around the component of their care such as wait times, needed diagnostic tests, and overall time in the ED. These expectations are affected by individual-specific, pre-encounter, and intra-encounter factors. When these factors are identified and understood, they can be managed during the care process to improve patient satisfaction.

Conclusion: Interventions to decrease perception of wait times and increase the perception of service being provided, when combined with management of patient expectations, can improve patient satisfaction.

MeSH terms

  • Emergency Service, Hospital / standards*
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological
  • Patient Satisfaction*
  • Time Perception*
  • Waiting Lists*