United States: Effective Patient Scheduling Depends on Finding the Right Fit

The less time a patient spends in the reception area or examination room, the better it is for both the medical practice and the patient. The patient is comforted knowing that the medical practice recognizes that their time is valuable, while the practice benefits by having efficient patient flow and effective utilization of staff and facilities.

Three Common Approaches

Here is a more detailed description of the three different approaches medical practices commonly use:

  1. Traditional or Stream Scheduling. The traditional, or "standardized," approach involves splitting the doctor's schedule into consistent periods — for example, four 15-minute periods per hour, then scheduling one patient into each block. Sometimes also called "cramming," the primary drawback of this method is that it does not take into consideration the possibility of emergency patients, no-shows or late arrivals. It also does not account for the fact that some procedures can be performed in five minutes, while others might require 30 minutes.
  2. Wave. This approach is most effective when a facility has several procedure rooms and a staff to manage them. While there are a number of variables, the overall concept is to schedule several patients (for example, six) at the top of each hour. While staff members collect information and vitals from several patients, the physician sees the others. A variation is to spread the six patients over the hour, with two on the hour, two more 20 minutes later and the remaining two about 40 minutes into the hour. This system is capable of inserting walk-ins into a no-show slot, however, schedulers must be able to recognize priority patients.
  3. Modified Wave. This approach is similar to the wave. The primary difference is that the last 15 minutes of the hour are intentionally left open. Doing so allows time for dealing with patients who require more attention, or for any other issues that may arise, resulting in a break in order to catch up.

Other Considerations

Practices also sometimes schedule specific days or blocks for certain types of patient visits—for example, some physicians may schedule new-patient visits or annual physicals for a specific day or time of day. Having staff triage the patient's issues when he or she calls is also beneficial. The staff member who answers the phone should be able to ascertain whether lab tests, X-rays or other types of procedures are needed and, as such, determine whether a longer or shorter time slot might work better.

Scheduling often depends on physician style, the number of physicians and ancillary help, and their training and roles. How much ancillary help does the practice have? Can some ancillary staff take vitals and triage the patients while the physician sees patients? Can they do this in all cases or only in certain types of cases?

One thing to keep in mind: Physicians (and staff) need to be honest with themselves regarding what works most efficiently in their office. Some doctors are frustrated or bored if they perform the same procedure over and over all day long. Some prefer specific lunch and break periods, while others are happy to eat when their schedule permits.

In addition, because medical practices are also businesses, many physicians want to set aside a day, or a block of hours, to attend to business-related issues, such as billing problems, correspondence, staffing matters and continuing medical education.

HIPPA

Another scheduling aspect to consider is the amount of time it can take for a patient to check in. In order to prevent patients from seeing other patient's confidential information, HIPPA rules restrict the information a patient may be asked to provide when checking in.

Effective and Efficient

Understanding the nature of the practice and the physician's work style can be a significant factor in creating an effective and efficient scheduling system. If your schedule does not work for you or your office, try to make adjustments to find the right fit.

Effective Patient Scheduling Depends on Finding the Right Fit

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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