No matter who you are or where you live, in a typical year we’ll spend countless hours waiting. From stopping in rush-hour traffic to standing in line to waiting for a spouse, friend or colleague to being kept on hold … the list is endless.

This much is known: being made to wait beyond a reasonable or customary amount of time for anything can draw groans from even the most patient of individual.  Life truly can be a waiting game. What researchers have found, though, is that it’s not so much the wait itself, but what’s in the wait that really matters to consumers.

In his article “The Psychology of Waiting Lines,” David A. Maister reports on the many factors affecting our perception of waiting. Maister astutely reports that perceived value affects our tolerance of waits. Restaurants spoon up a great example of Maister’s theory. We’ll accept a much longer wait at a five-star restaurant than for the food served at a greasy spoon.

Healthcare presents its own unique challenges to the waiting game. Patients wait on the phone to get an appointment, information or test results; sit in waiting rooms waiting for appointments or at the pharmacy waiting for a prescription to be filled.

For hospital marketers, the big question is: How are you seizing the marketing and PR opportunities and enhancing the wait for your customers – your patients?  Are you making these waits palatable and even enjoyable? Are your customers feeling valued and special? Or are they running out the door to try the competition?

Maister and other experts suggest that whatever the activity you choose to fill customers’ time, it should be relevant in some way to their upcoming service encounter and offer a benefit in and of itself to the consumer.

Maister recalled a sports team’s on-hold messaging system that played the highlights of the previous week’s game for fans waiting on hold. Pleaded one rabid sports fan after being transferred from on hold to the receptionist, “Put me back, (so and so) is just about to score!” This is a great example of where high-powered verbal imagery makes waiting a pleasure.

Maister probably would be proud of the strides healthcare is making in its quest to improve messaging and make sure that the patient has an enjoyable experience. However we manage our client expectations for the wait – whether it’s visual (with artwork or via television), tactile (print) or auditory (phone messaging), it needs to keep Maister’s simple yet intuitive principles in mind: make it meaningful, relevant and easy-to-understand.

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