Why patients may lack patience

Alice G. Walton | Jan 06, 2021

People’s patience can be shaped by the context in which they are being asked to wait as much as by their inherent stoicism. For example, people can be more patient when they have a greater appreciation of the thing they’re waiting for, suggests research by Chicago Booth PhD student Annabelle R. Roberts, Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach, and University of California at Los Angeles’ Franklin Shaddy, a recent graduate of Booth’s PhD Program. (For more, read “When people are willing to wait.”)

But in a medical context, the desire for closure can work against patience. People may opt for a less-optimal procedure or medical device simply because it’s available sooner, finds other new research by Roberts and Fishbach. 

In one study, they asked participants to choose between two lotteries to win a pulse oximeter, a desirable device to have at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. They could enter a lottery to win either a poorer quality device or a better one, both to be made available at the same time. When the lotteries happened simultaneously, only 13 percent of people entered to win the inferior device. But when the lottery for the inferior one happened two weeks sooner than that for the superior version, the number jumped to 25 percent. Many people chose the inferior device not because they would receive it sooner (they wouldn’t), but because they could apply for it sooner. 

Another experiment involved a hypothetical scenario about a treatment administered before an international trip, to boost immunity for a disease that could only be contracted while abroad. Participants were offered a painful shot or a painless pill, both of which would produce health benefits at the same time. Nevertheless, 68 percent of participants said they would choose the shot when they could get it over with sooner rather than the pill, whereas only 31 percent chose the shot when both treatments were available simultaneously.

 “When patients are impatient, it’s often because they desire to take something off their plate,” says Fishbach. “They don’t want that thing hanging over their heads. So you might opt for a worse medical treatment because it’s available sooner. Interestingly, we find that people are willing to tolerate pain or compromise their health in order to achieve closure sooner.”

Impatience is a major source of negative experience while waiting for health care. A second set of studies establishes that an individual’s distance from receiving care plays a role. When participants were asked to envision a trip to the doctor, they were less patient after waiting nine minutes when they expected the wait to be 10 minutes than when they expected the wait to be 20 minutes. After waiting the same amount of time, people were less patient when they were closer to seeing the doctor. Similarly, in the context of a medical appointment, participants said they would be less patient waiting to check out compared with check in, and when waiting in an exam room for an appointment than waiting in the reception area. These scenarios suggest that the closer individuals believe they are to a completing a medical procedure, the less patient they become.

Health-care professionals may want to apply the findings to their practices, as the desire for closure influences not just patients’ experiences but their decisions, the researchers note. Thus, if health-care providers were to consider this phenomenon, they could improve patients’ emotional well-being and lead them to make more-patient decisions.