This simple study shows a significant association between older age, early arrival time and lower rates of non-attendance in a neurological outpatient clinic, thus verifying the intuition that older patients are more punctual than younger patients.
A novel finding in the present study was that there is a significant association between older age and increased patient earliness, also when adjusted for gender, appointment type, appointment time and need for assistance in order to get to the outpatient clinic. Age-related earliness could be related to that older individuals have more free time, they are more conscious about their health, or a shift in the younger part of the community regarding attitude or respect toward punctuality and attendance in general. From the hospital perspective, early arrival is much better than late arrival. However, as many as 15% of the patients showed up more than 30 min before their appointments. This degree of earliness increases the risk of overcrowded waiting areas, less overview for the hospital staff and might lead to lower patient satisfaction. Because of limited space, more patients may risk standing while waiting for their appointment, which may be problematic for elderly and chronically ill patients. We speculate that attendance approximately 15 min before the appointment is a reasonable earliness where pros and cons are levelled out for patients and the health care system. In this regard, the median waiting time in the present study was accurate. An intervention tailored towards avoiding too early arrival seems less expedient and may very well lead to the contrary, which is even less favourable. Furthermore, at least a partial explanation for very early arrivals could be the transport arrangement and traffic situation.
In this study, the non-attendance rate was 9.5%, which is consistent with previous studies from different medical settings showing non-attendance rates ranging from 2 to 30% [5, 7, 8, 13,14,15,16]. Comparison between these studies should be done with caution due to very varying settings and study populations. However, in the UK, which has a similar health care system as in Norway, the non-attendance has been reported to be about 12% . Our results could be extrapolated to about 800 cancelled appointments due to non-attendance only at our outpatient clinic each year, which lead to direct loss of revenue of approximately 80,000 Euros, in addition to several indirect costs. Non-attendance is a major health care system challenge in terms of social costs of unused resources such as staff, ward capacity and misuse of other patients’ time. In addition, the hospital and health region authority receive a lower reimbursement than budgeted. Because of the large numbers, even a small reduction in no-shows would save a significant cost.
It is possible to speculate that patients who have not attended their appointments in the past may be more likely to repeat the behaviour , and thus further worsening the total waiting list situation. Long waiting time before appointment is not only a health risk, but is related to reduced patient satisfaction .
In one study from general practice, the most common reasons for missing appointments were forgetfulness, appointment at an inconvenient time, family commitments and illness . There are somewhat conflicting results whether non-attendance is more common in new referrals than for follow-ups [11, 20, 21]. In the present study, non-attendance was more common for new referrals than for follow-up appointments. This is important to address as the duration of new appointments in our outpatient clinic is longer (60 min) compared to regular follow-ups (30 min), making the non-attendance for new appointment even more costly and wasteful for both the hospital and the society. Inadequate communication between the referring physician and the patient has been suggested as a reason for more frequent non-attendance in new referrals [22, 23]. Possible explanations may be that the patient does not know why he or she is referred; the patient may not be aware of the seriousness of a disorder, or may even be referred to different hospitals or departments without the knowledge that these different appointments concern different organ systems or disorders. The latter may be an even bigger problem in the future with an increasing proportion of elderly patients with multi-morbidity combined with a more fractioned and sub-specialised health care system. Furthermore, a long time period between referral and appointment time has been suggested as a risk factor for non-attendance [21, 24].
In the present study, older age was associated with lower non-attendance, which is comparable to findings from other studies [7, 8, 11, 13]. In a Swiss Internal Medicine outpatient clinic , the non-attendance rate was 15.8%, and these patients were significantly younger than the controls (38.4 versus 43.6 years). Similarly, in a study from a multidisciplinary outpatient clinic including about 13,000 appointments , the no-show rate decreased for every increase in age quartile, and for every 1-year increase in age, the absolute no-show rate decreased by 2,4%. Possible explanations for this age effect suggested in the article were family and employment engagements among younger patients, and increased health problems among elderly patients, thus increasing the tendency to keep appointments . Also in our study, it is reasonable to assume that elderly patients have more severe and advanced neurological conditions and therefore have a higher need to see a physician, thus the higher attendance-rate.
Although non-attendance has been the major focus of most studies concerning schedule planning and improvement of patient flow, some intervention [3, 8, 25] and modelling and simulation [2, 26] studies exist with promising results. Most randomized controlled trials on appointment reminders by telephone and text messaging (short message service [SMS]) have shown that non-attendance rates are significantly lower in the intervention groups compared to control groups with an average reduction of non-attendance of about 9% . One study showed a non-significant reduction . Furthermore, both telephone reminders and SMS one day before the scheduled appointment were cost-effective [25, 27, 29]. In contrast, only four out of sevens studies testing postal reminders were positive with an average reduction of non-attendance of 7.6% . Letting the patients book their own appointments has also been suggested as a possible option to reduce non-attendance. A primary care study investigated the effect of giving the patients a copy of the referral letter, however, this did not affect the attendance rates .
In an intervention study from a pain clinic in Baltimore, USA , 9.6% of the patients arrived after the appointment time, but this lateness rate was reduced to 4.6% after an intervention where patients were informed that tardy patients would not be seen and would be rescheduled. Furthermore, mean unpunctuality changed from - 20.5 to - 25.0 min, i.e. patient earliness increased. Additionally, simulations revealed that reducing patient unpunctuality reduces delays. Unfortunately, the impact of age on patient earliness was not evaluated . In a study on late arrival from a paediatric outpatient clinic , 10% of about 65,000 visits were late arrivals. The odds of late arrival were increased for patients who spoke English (compared to Spanish), Medicaid or no insurance and late arrival on their previous appointment. Age was not included in the analysis. In our study, the late arrival rate of 5.1% was somewhat lower compared to other studies, and late arrival was associated with younger age. In contrast to our findings, Hang et al.  showed that patients were most likely to be late to early morning appointments.
As non-attendance and unpunctuality remain important issues with large implications for patients, physicians and society, it is of uttermost importance to reduce such behaviour. New interventions may be tailored towards patients, GPs and hospital systems and should be based on the existing evidence. The age effect should be considered when developing future simulation models and intervention studies. Flexible scheduling with a mix of older and younger patients may be a possibility, alternatively selectively overbooking a mix of younger patients. Models focusing on a mix of different age groups in order to avoid the daily variation on non-attendance and late arrivals would also be beneficial, and may increase physician and staff satisfaction.
Some limitations need to be addressed. This was a single-centre study from a single speciality. Characteristics and behaviour of patients with neurological conditions may differ from patients attending outpatient clinics from other specialities. The results can thus not necessarily be generalized. However, the age and gender distribution was most probably similar to that found in most Norwegian general medicine outpatient clinics. It is not possible to exclude that some patients may have been included more than once, however, it is extremely rare with more than one appointment over a two-month period (except for the few patients with multiple sclerosis treated with natalizumab every fourth week). The patients’ travel distance from home to the hospital was not collected, neither if the patients had to arrange the transport to hospital. The actual time the appointment started, i.e. physician delay, was not recorded. In addition, information was not collected on patients’ reasons for non-attendance or late arrival. No interventions were initiated.