How to Improve Patient Flow
Healthcare providers know that patient experience affects whether they will return for future treatment. A patient forced into a confusing environment and made to wait or left to feel abandoned will likely find a new provider.
Your patient flow directly affects their satisfaction in visiting your office. Flow is the speed, accuracy, and efficiency with which a patient moves through your practice’s services. Whether you practice alone or with a large group, improved flow can prevent surges and overbookings, stabilize appointment fluctuations, and eliminate unnecessary delays. All of these benefits enhance the experience.
Servicing more patients doesn’t always require more facilities and staff. Good flow allows offices to maximize care with fewer doctors seeing more patients. Moreover, effective patient flow allows your business to save money on staff, automation, and process. It can reduce costs and increase revenue.
Building a system that promotes a seamless flow isn’t easy, but it’s worth the investment.
Build a Culture Around Patient Flow
Your first task is to create an environment that strives to improve patient flow. Whether you’re a single practitioner, a partner in a small practice, or part of a large business, everyone must understand your goal to service patients quickly.
People, primarily, are afraid of change. Your staff may fear you’re heaping more work on them.
Explain the benefits. Moving patients through the process means appointments are finished sooner, so everyone takes their lunch and goes home on time. It also reduces stress in the workplace because no one feels behind by 10 A.M.
Encourage receptionists, schedulers, and nurses to inform patients where to go next preemptively. If necessary, lead patients to the proper areas. Use strong language to explain what will happen next clearly. Don’t worry about being forceful; most people appreciate clear directions.
For example, at the end of the appointment, a healthcare provider might say, “Thanks for coming. Have a nice day.” It signals the end of the meeting, but it doesn’t provide direction. Coach staff to say, “Thanks for coming. Head down the hall and see Kathy at the desk with the vase of flowers.” The latter will quickly deliver your patient to the proper desk, making room for new patients.
Reduce In-Office Time Sinks
Doctors, nutritionists, dentists, naturopaths, therapists, and other healthcare providers should take their time with patients to provide quality care. Rushed diagnoses or treatments could lead to unhappy patients. There’s room, however, to optimize office tasks to improve patient flow.
Your admissions and billing desk is typically your office’s bottleneck. Separate the two functions to serve patients faster. A patient who wants to check in shouldn’t have to wait behind a patient with complex billing questions. Give both desks the ability to schedule new appointments, providing patients with a clear path to their next visit.
Online intake forms allow patients to fill out necessary information before they set foot in the office. Upon scheduling an appointment, they receive a link in their email account to a form. Submitting the HIPPA-compliant form sends the data straight to the healthcare provider. These forms can be as simple or complex as the healthcare professional needs. Use this same method for waivers, so patients can take the time to read and understand their agreements.
Many healthcare providers attempt a version of this system with downloadable PDFs. They ask patients to print a form, fill it out, and bring it with them to the appointment. These steps complicate the experience. Furthermore, it doesn’t make the healthcare provider aware of the information before the appointment. The provider can’t prepare ahead of time or validate insurance because they only receive the paperwork after the patient hands it over.
Beware Traffic Inside & Outside Your Practice
Patient flow is more than the journey of people, records, and insurance claims within your office. It would help if you also concerned yourself with the traffic patterns outside your practice’s front door.
Patients who can’t get to your office because of traffic or inadequate public transportation will permanently disrupt your flow. Frequently, they’ll show up late or not at all. Then, you’re forced to overbook to recoup the time—which comes with additional challenges (more on this topic below).
It’s essential to position your practice in an easily accessible place. Accessible areas could mean buying or leasing space near public transportation and parking or setting up offices near similar facilities. For example, a nutritionist might consider opening a shop within walking distance of a hospital.
Covered drop-off areas that accommodate one-way traffic are tremendously effective. These allow disabled and ill patients to access rides without loitering in waiting rooms or crowding curbs.
Create a logical traffic flow within your office that prevents crossed paths. When patients enter your office, it should be clear where they check in and wait. Use unmistakable signage to lead the way when staff isn’t present.
Incoming patients should not bump into outgoing patients settling invoices and scheduling future appointments. These should be two separate areas. Ideally, patients should follow a circular path, where incoming and outgoing patients only meet at the doors.
Overbooking is a financial reality for many healthcare providers. Each day, offices suffer a 7 to 10% no-show rate. Offices must strategically overbook their schedule to make up for the loss. If reception mishandles over-scheduling, it can create jams and a poor patient experience.
You can use predictive analytics to estimate the likelihood of no-shows based on factors like employment type, insurance, marital status, history, etc. Still, it would be best if you had smart scheduling to prevent issues before they arise. An experienced admissions specialist or specialized software can glance at the next day’s schedule and target potential time slots for overbooking.
If all parties attend their appointments, you’ll end up with a slightly delayed schedule. If you overbook appointments too near one another, you’ll have a substantial delay that will disrupt your flow and anger patients.
You can make up the delay elsewhere (through efficient processing or later-in-the-day no-shows) as long as overbookings have space in between. Good scheduling is not about avoiding delays but anticipating and managing them.
Creating efficient systems is often about maximizing the little machinations of your business. Automating a low-effort task or eliminating a small obstacle may have little effect each day, but over time, these changes will equate to dollars in the bank.
Countless solutions are available to manage tedious tasks like billing reminders, appointment reminders, and intake forms. While you can’t automate tasks (like payroll, human resources, and medical and insurance billing), you may outsource to dedicated vendors.
Use mobile workstations (computers/equipment on wheels) or cloud-based systems to make electronic records and manage the flow of your staff. Healthcare providers won’t need to visit their offices if they can enter information into the system right in the exam room. These workstations can also deliver operational details, like where patients are waiting and where to go, and carry basic supplies, so the examiner is never left wanting critical information.
Delegate every possible task to support staff. These professionals are more affordable and more abundant in the hiring pool. Your highly trained professionals should only be performing the duties of their specialty, lest you waste their costly time and talents.
In-Office Handoffs Between Healthcare Providers
Patients requiring multiple services often move from one clinic area to another. They must travel between offices, check-in, wait, and undress again. This redundancy keeps the patient in your office longer and aggravates an otherwise pleasant experience.
It’s smarter, therefore, to leave the transition to clinical staff. Use the same exam rooms with mobile workstations so patients can stay put while healthcare providers come to them. This way, you don’t rely on the patient to understand your flow and move quickly. It also creates a seamless, hassle-free experience for your patient.
Communication Is Key
An informed patient will tolerate delays. She’ll wait longer and excuse mistakes. Encourage your staff to repeatedly educate patients about estimated wait times, why they are waiting, and which steps to take next. Strive for an abundance of communication.
Furthermore, your patients can be a practical resource to discover where your process is failing. Listen to those who submit complaints. Take their opinions seriously. Are they grumbling about something you can do better? At the very least, listen to all grievances. Strongly consider actively polling patients with “How was your experience?” questionnaires after appointments.
Your goal is to find the spots in your patient flow where patients feel like they aren’t receiving value. Once you have that information, you’ll know where to improve.