An Unexpected Experience – Waiting

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Ever been there? Go ahead, you can click on it. I sat there for 3 songs, and midway through the second one, I decided to start filming. What makes waiting so hard? Well, in this situation: I was alone – no one to talk to… I was uncomfortable – I’d had one too many bottles of water that afternoon…

I was late and I didn’t know how much longer I would be there. My kids were getting off the bus and I was still 5 minutes away without a train delay…

I didn’t understand – halfway through the third song, the train stopped, and then went the other way!! Like as though it just changed its mind and decided not to go west after all! This not only infuriated me but added to my sense of anxiety.

I could’ve been doing something else – I was sitting next to my favorite Pizza Lucé and I swear I could smell their cheesy bread wafting out of the restaurant as happy hour-goers enjoyed some munchies while I was stuck in the far lane unable to access the parking lot…

It made me think of what it’s like for patients in the Emergency Department.  In this series, we’re looking at the Unexpected Experience of the Emergency Department and in this post I’d like to look at what’s most important to patients. The number one complaint heard by Emergency Department personnel is the waiting.

In his work, The Psychology of Waiting in Lines, David Maister describes how waiting is harder when [1]:

  • The wait time is unknown
  • The waiting is unexplained
  • The waiting seems unfair
  • Your time is unoccupied time (nothing to distract you
  • You are anxious
  • You are alone

I’d add one more – the wait is Unexpected! Inherent in the patient and family journey through the ED, and the subject of this blog series, is that waiting seems longer when I didn’t plan to be waiting!

I had to renew my license this May on my birthday. When I got up that morning, I knew I needed to go in and I knew it would be a long wait (It always is at the DMV). So, my expectations were that I would wait, and I brought some work to do while I sat there. Contrast that with the train example above which wasn’t on my agenda for that afternoon and didn’t really fit into my otherwise busy life! That’s also true for those seeking care at the ED; it wasn’t in their plan for today. Waiting can seem longer given everything else that has to be put on hold in order to head to the ED.

How many of these reasons about what makes waiting so hard are true for patients and families seeking care in the Emergency Departments across America? When we share this list at our empathy training workshops, staff and physicians comment that this feels like a checklist for the Emergency Department. So many of these aspects of waiting are part of patients and their family’s experiences in the ED. What can be done to help alleviate the waiting or at least make it easier for patients and families? In our next post in this Unexpected Experience Series, we’ll discuss several strategies to consider when addressing waiting in your Emergency Department.


[1] Maister, D. (1985). The Psychology of Waiting Lines. In J. A. Czepiel, M. R. Solomon & C. F. Surprenant (Eds.), The Service encounter: managing employee/customer interaction in service businesses. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, Lexington Books.

Janiece Gray

I began my career as a social worker and later, with my Master of Health Administration (MHA), directed operations at Allina Health in Minnesota. I later directed patient experience at Allina. My background and experience give me strengths in approaching healthcare opportunities and challenges through a systems lens – with unique strengths, challenges and activation points. My experience is also informed by leadership roles leading performance improvement in patient-centered care and patient experience departments. Working in the client role with healthcare consulting firms inspired me to address some unmet needs in the industry, and to co-found DTA Healthcare Solutions. I have a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and find that the discipline of practice translates to healthcare work very well.

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