The Virtual Patient Waiting Room: What it is, Why You Need it, and How to Create it

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Introduction

Virtual waiting rooms, also referred to as curbside check-in, mobile waiting rooms, and zero-contact waiting rooms, offer medical groups, hospitals, and health systems a sustainable strategy to replace the waiting room experience for in-office appointments and support a queue of patients utilizing Telehealth.

The waiting room experience hasn’t changed much over the years and yet is a significant component to the patient experience, affected by the overall atmosphere of the waiting room, how long a patient waits there, and what other delighters or disturbances are present. But the waiting room also poses risks as patients touch shared surfaces or devices and are exposed to other patients. While this risk has always existed, the COVID-19 pandemic shed new light on these risks and heightened awareness for both medical office staff and patients. Similarly, COVID-19 spurred a rapid increase in the use and adoption of Telehealth and though it is likely to lose momentum in the recovery of the crisis it will certainly remain a significant part of patient appointment volume long term.

Digital patient engagement solutions have been streamlining the patient journey for years, engaging patients and expanding access to scheduling, payments, and communication. In the wake of COVID-19, these same tools have become instrumental in powering zero-contact processes like virtual waiting rooms, digital intake, and contactless payments. As medical groups, hospitals, and health systems begin eliminating the traditional waiting room experience to reduce the risk of patient and staff exposure, the same tools that have eased scheduling, reduced no-shows, and shortened the revenue cycle are also foundational to making a virtual waiting room a sustainable strategy.

What is a Virtual Waiting Room

A virtual waiting room can have two meanings. In the context of a patient arriving for an in-office medical appointment, a virtual waiting room is the process in which a patient can check-in from their mobile device and remain in their vehicle until an exam room is available. This allows the patient to bypass the traditional waiting room, reducing their risk of exposure to both other patients and germs and viruses present on surfaces, shared devices like kiosks, and materials like magazines, books, papers, clipboards, and pens.

In the context of a Telehealth appointment, a virtual waiting room is a process used by patients to indicate they are ready for their televisit, staff who are viewing and managing a patients televisit experience, and/or a provider who is indicating they are ready to initiate the telemedicine appointment with the patient or caregiver.

3 Reasons You Need a Virtual Waiting Room Solution at Your Medical Practice

Virtual waiting rooms offer multiple benefits to medical practices, hospitals, and health systems looking to power sustainable Telehealth processes and/or replace a traditional waiting room experience for in-office visits with a safer, more efficient patient experience. Here are three reasons every medical practice should have a virtual waiting room.

Virtual Waiting Rooms Drive Better Infection Control

The risk of spreading infection in an outpatient setting used to be considered relatively low, in part because patients seen and treated in outpatient settings were of low-acuity and therefore presented lower risk themselves. However, as healthcare has continued to push more treatments and procedures to the outpatient setting while also decreasing the length of stay for patients in an acute care setting, outpatient acuity is rising. In other words, the patients seeking care in outpatient settings have become more medically complex and at the same time, as more patients seek outpatient care, waiting rooms and clinics have become more crowded.

Infection control in the waiting room isn’t limited to surfaces or shared devices, those these pose significant risk if not managed appropriately, but the spread of airborne illnesses and diseases can’t be impacted with hand hygiene stations or even really social distancing as HVAC systems can spread viruses in a shared area like a waiting room easily.

Allowing patients to wait in their vehicles until a private exam room is available reduces the risk of infection for patients and staff alike. And because processes that once took place in the waiting room, like patient payments and the collection of medical histories and payer information, can be completed with digital tools, there’s no longer good reason to require patients to wait inside.

Virtual Waiting Rooms Are Essential for Medical Practices Offering Telehealth

Privacy is of the utmost importance for sustainable Telehealth and while some Telehealth platforms work this into their solutions, others may not. Additionally, during times of major disruption, like the COVID-19 pandemic, regulations around acceptable Telehealth platforms can be relaxed to make Telehealth more accessible to providers and patients. This means platforms that weren’t designed to deliver Telehealth become acceptable during those times but don’t have HIPAA compliance built-in. A virtual waiting room for these purposes can be created in more than one way and provide a strategy for medical office staff and providers to manage the queue of patients scheduled for telehealth visits, keep providers on-schedule, and help patients navigate the telemedicine process.

Virtual Waiting Rooms are More Patient Friendly

Even nicely decorated waiting rooms that offer amenities like coffee, bottled water, and snacks aren’t ideal for patients. Traditional patient waiting rooms come with variables that can’t be controlled by office staff and can be inconvenient, disturbing, or simply annoying to patients—think crying children, noticeably sick patients, patients on phone calls, etc. Allowing patients the ability to wait in their vehicles gives them the privacy to spend their time as they wish, whether that’s simply waiting in silence, reading a book, listening to the music or programming they like, or talking on the phone with a friend, colleague, or loved one.

Finally, while infection control used to be something largely on the minds of medical office staff and providers, patients are becoming increasingly aware of their risks and are looking for ways to stay safe. If a patient perceives risk in the waiting room, it may negatively impact their satisfaction and detract from a positive patient experience.

How to Create a Virtual Waiting Room

It isn’t difficult to create a virtual waiting room and the same tools that can power the virtual waiting room for in-office visits can also power a virtual waiting room for televisits. Here a few strategies medical practices, hospitals, and health systems are using.

Digital Patient Registration and Check-In

Digital check-in not only allows patients to notify staff they are ready for their appointments, it creates a queue that’s easy to view and manage by medical office staff. A robust digital check-in solution makes it more efficient for staff to see which patients have checked in, which patients have not, and how long it’s been since these tasks have been completed (in other words, how long they’ve been waiting). Best practice solutions also make it easy for medical office staff to view whether or not a patient has completed their registration forms so they can assist patients who have not completed them.

Digital patient registration upholds the processes that would take place in a traditional waiting room, making it possible to eliminate. Patient forms, payer/insurance cards, and patient identification can all be collected and in many cases, imported to the EHR or practice management system via integration and writebacks.

2-Way Patient Chat/Messaging

A simple text message between patient and medical office staff can notify staff a patient is ready to check-in and waiting in the parking lot. If there are screening questions for patients or patients have questions at the point of check-in, a secure messaging solution offers staff and patients a safe place to have HIPAA-compliant conversations.

This strategy also offers medical staff a simple way to tell a patient that their provider is ready to initiate a telehealth visit or for patients to check-in with medical office staff and notify them that they are ready for the provider.

Best Practices to Support Your Virtual Waiting Room

A virtual waiting room should be something your patient engagement partner can help you implement without requiring you to go search for a separate vendor. Your virtual waiting room will be most sustainable and offer the greatest payoff when supported by your other patient engagement solutions, like appointment reminders, mobile payments, and surveys. You don’t need an entire platform, rather use what you have in place to communicate with your patients, set their expectations, and help them navigate the patient journey—whether it be telehealth or an in-office appointment. Here a few examples:

  • Include language in your appointment reminders to let patients know how to check-in digitally, complete registration forms, and that they’ll be asked to wait in their vehicles (if not a televisit). You should be able to include a link to digital registration forms and a separate link to digital check-in.
  • Text or email your patients a post-visit survey to get real time feedback and stay alert of service recovery needs and opportunities to improve both in-office and telehealth waiting experiences.
  • Use mobile payments and patient balance messaging to both collect copays from patients at the time of service and patient balances/deductible post-visit.

If you have a 2-way patient messaging solution, a text response from a patient to any of the SMS-based solutions above should populate a dashboard and notify medical office staff that they have a message to reply to.

Lastly, find a partner you can count on, meaning: 

  • The offer live support during your most critical hours of operations and a robust way to submit support requests and communicate digitally during the support process
  • They offer you dedicated implementation resources so you have someone to help walk you through the process beginning to end
  • They check in from time to time to brainstorm, offer solutions to your most common issues, and take product feedback back to their development teams
  • They specialize in healthcare so their attention isn’t divided and they understand how their products impact not just your operations, but your patients.

Conclusion

Virtual waiting rooms gained instant adoption during the COVID-19 pandemic when concerns over risk and infection peaked and when Telehealth became non-negotiable for providing care during a time when Americans were told to stay home whenever possible. But the virtual waiting room makes sense for the long term and should become best practice in medical offices across the nation for the ability to further mitigate patient and staff exposure to illness and disease, the efficiency it offers to patient flow, and the ability to help sustain Telehealth as a new staple in delivering outpatient care.

Virtual waiting rooms don’t have to be complicated to implement, simple patient-centered engagement solutions like 2-way patient messaging and digital patient registration and check-in can power a virtual waiting room that serves in-office visits and telemedicine visits. When used strategically with the other patient engagement solutions already in place, you can establish and support a digital patient experience that delights patients, drives better outcomes, and helps maintain financial stability for the practice, hospital, or health system.

There are vendors who do this well and those who don’t deliver the results they promise. Look for someone who specializes in healthcare, is highly recommended by their customers and third parties, and can offer you a flexible platform that meets your needs without having to seek out multiple vendors.

    Do you need a virtual waiting room for in-office & Telehealth appointments?