Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

3 Lessons From Your Patient’s Impatience


The excellent clinician acknowledges their patient's impatience and frustration. In doing so, relationships with patients and clinical outcomes may be improved.

Of all the qualities that a patient must develop throughout their treatment, whether it’s short or long, painful or relieving, there is one that is most important across the board: patience.


Patience is particularly pertinent within the current medical system, since the medical encounter is steeped in waiting: wait to be seen by the clinician, wait for diagnosis and test results, wait for the treatment to take effect, wait until the next appointment. Similarly, patients must patiently navigate a seemingly endless labyrinth of medical convention, by filling in forms, submitting claims, and reading the necessary literature that provides crucial information for treatment.


Etymologies can usually teach us a thing or two about the ways through which words acquire their social meanings. The etymology of the word patient is no exception: originally denoting a person who endures without complaining in the mid-14th century, the word patient was associated with passively enduring an ordeal without complaining, instead of bearing the responsibilities that a patient is required to in order to successfully navigate the medical system. Even though clinicians tend to be understanding when their patients become impatient, patience is seen as a virtue, while impatience is traditionally seen as disruptive.


So what, if anything, can we learn from a patient’s impatience?


1.) Impatience as a force of improvement

We can turn to etymology once again to understand the social role of impatience. Before impatience became a loathsome personality trait, originally it meant a person’s restlessness under existing circumstances. Although today impatience is often seen as individual weakness, originally, the emphasis was on the conditions that bred impatience.

The question then that could be asked more frequently in the medical setting is “would my patient be less impatient if the circumstances were different?”

By interpreting impatience as a character trait exacerbated by illness, we might be overlooking the elements of the medical encounter that create this impatience. Instead, it can be fruitful to consider impatience as a symptom of what is missing in a given system. In that sense, patient impatience can give a hint as to what needs to be improved.


2.) Impatience due to lack of information or clear communication

Sometimes impatience exhibited in the waiting area, or in meeting with the clinician, can be due to lack of information or clear communication. Depending on the circumstances, impatience may show a misunderstanding of the process and may in fact reflect a healthy curiosity about what steps follow, particularly as healthcare procedures are often characterized by administrative opacity.

Depending on the cultural context, patience may have different meanings, and it sometimes may encourage stoicism without understanding. Contrary to our first instinct, then, impatience may create a suitable environment to engage a patient. Reinforcing the curiosity part of impatience may have tremendous benefits both for the patient experience and for the resilience of your patient in the long run.


3.) Helping us to ask the right questions

Your patient’s impatience can be an important step in building a patient-centered care system, as it can urge us to ask the right questions. What is the patient impatient to get back to? Is the patient’s impatience, manner, tone, or disposition a sign of distrust towards healthcare professionals?

Acknowledging impatience and frustration can be a step towards validating your patient’s experience, and helping you to improve your practice.