How to Improve Patient Flow

Healthcare providers know that patients’ experiences affect whether they will return for future treatment. A patient who is forced into a confusing environment, made to wait, or left to feel abandoned will likely find a new provider.

Your patient flow directly affects their experience. Flow is the speed, accuracy and efficiency with which a patient moves through your practice. 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 fewer doctors to see more patients. It allows your business to save money on staff, automation and process. It can reduce cost and increase revenue.

Building a system that promotes flow isn’t easy, but it’s worth the investment.

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A Culture of 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, it’s essential that everyone understands your goal to service patients quickly.

People, largely, 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 at 10 A.M.

Encourage receptionists, schedulers and nurses to actively inform patients where to go next. If necessary, patients should be lead to the proper areas. Use firm language that clearly explains what will happen next. 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. Staff should be coached 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


In the interest of providing quality care, it’s best for doctors, nutritionists, dentists, naturopaths, therapists and other healthcare providers to take their time with patients. Rushed diagnoses or treatments could lead to unhappy patients. There’s room, however, to optimize your office tasks in order 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 so a patient always has a clear path to the 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 requires. This method can also be used 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. Plus, 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 information at the meeting.

Managing Traffic

Patient flow is more than the journey of records and insurance claims through your office. You also need to concern yourself with the traffic patterns of actual people.

Patients who can’t get to your office because of traffic or inadequate public transportation will always disrupt your flow. They’ll show up late or not at all. You’ll be forced to overbook to recoup the time, which comes with its own challenges (more on this in a minute).

It’s important to position your practice in an easily accessible place. This could mean buying or leasing space near public transportation ports and parking, or positioning your office near similar facilities (for example, a nutritionist opening shop within walking distance of a hospital).

Covered drop-off areas that accommodate one-way traffic are tremendously effective. These allow infirm or immobile patients to access rides without loitering in waiting rooms and 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 where they wait. Use unmistakable signage to lead the way when staff isn’t present.

Incoming patients should not bump into outgoing patients who are 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.

Strategic Overbooking


Overbooking is a financial reality for many healthcare providers. Each day, offices suffer a 7-10% no-show rate. Offices are forced to strategically overbook their schedule to make up the loss. If the over-scheduling is done incorrectly, 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., but all you really need is smart scheduling. An experienced admissions specialist can glance at the next day’s schedule and target potential time slots for overbooking.

If all parties show for their appointments, your schedule will incur a slight delay. If you overbook appointments too near one another, you’ll end up with a substantial delay that will disrupt your flow and infuriate patients.

As long as the overbookings are spaced out, you can make up the delay elsewhere (through efficient processing or later-in-the-day no-shows). Essentially, good scheduling is not about avoiding delays, but anticipating and managing them.

Maximizing Efficiency

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 a miniscule effect each day, but over time, these changes will equate to dollars in the bank. There are countless solutions available that manage tedious tasks like billing reminders, appointment reminders, and intake forms. Other tasks (like payroll, human resources, and medical and insurance billing) can’t be automated, but they can be outsourced 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 input their information to the system right in the exam room. These workstations can also deliver operational information, like where patients are waiting and where to go next, and carry basic supplies so the examiner is never without.

Delegate every possible task to support staff. These professionals are cheaper 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.

The Hand-Off Transition

Medical office - middle-aged male doctor greeting patient, shaking hands.
Photo credit: Vic/Flickr

Patients who require multiple services are often moved from one area of a clinic to another. They’re forced to travel between offices, check in again, wait again, and undress again. This redundancy keeps the patient in your office longer and soils an otherwise pleasant experience.

It’s smarter, therefore, to leave the transitioning to the 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.

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Communication is Key

An informed patient will tolerate delays. He’ll wait longer and excuse mistakes. Encourage your staff to repeatedly inform patients about how long they’ll wait, why they are waiting, and which steps to take next. Seek an abundance of communication.

Furthermore, your patients can be an effective resource to find out where your process is failing. Listen to those who inevitably complain. Take their opinions seriously. Are they bemoaning something you can do better? At the very least, listen to all grievances, but I recommend actively polling your patients with “how was your experience?” questionnaires after their appointments.

Your goal is to find the spots in your flow where patients feel like they aren’t receiving value. Once you have that information, you’ll know where to optimize.


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