MedCity Influencers, Hospitals, Physicians

How To Manage a Post-Covid Appointment Surge – Smartly

More patients are coming back to the doctor’s office even as a physician shortage looms; here’s how savvy healthcare providers are turning to intelligent scheduling technology to optimize physician time and clinic efficiency.h

During the pandemic, most people delayed in-person care they didn’t deem strictly necessary. Worse, instances of chronic disease surged during the pandemic: Surveys show that millions of us have gained weight, taken on bad habits, developed acute psychological stress and neglected our care in everything from cholesterol checks to cancer screenings.  If you are anything like me, we are still catching up on those post-Covid appointments with my primary care physician, dermatologist, dentist, etc.

The good news is we are starting to show up en masse again at the doctor’s office to address these and other critical and ongoing health concerns. The challenge for many provider groups is managing capacity greater than what they were built for in the midst of a labor shortage. Unfortunately, this isn’t a short-term issue: “Healthcare workers are quitting in droves,” the Atlantic reports, noting that about one in five health-care workers has left their job since the pandemic started.  Within the next five years, the U.S. is expected to face a shortage of more than 3.2 million lower-wage healthcare workers, and that doesn’t even take into account the projected shortage of up to 124,000 physicians nationwide by 2034.

Keep physicians’ schedules full with the right appointments 

For many healthcare organizations struggling with a surge in demand, provider shortages, overburdened staff, and long patient wait times for appointments, addressing some of the foundational issues with patient scheduling and appointment management can go a long way in alleviating these challenges.  The key is ensuring providers time is optimized for the best, right appointments on a continuous basis.

Here are some ways innovative clinics are using intelligent scheduling technology to maximize physician capacity, guarantee physicians are practicing top of license and optimize physician efficiency.

  • Ensure higher physician utilization by integrating contingencies into appointment booking. Many provider organizations tell us they regularly lose between 15 and 30 percent of their physicians’ productivity due to unfilled time because they either haven’t managed to fully book enough patients with the right conditions to match physician availability or because they lose planned appointments due to no-shows. Some providers just accept this as a cost of doing business. However, setting up dynamic rules to monitor patient populations can help offset this quite dramatically. Knowing which patients are likely to respond to reminders and requests for confirmations helps. So does carefully and strategically managed overbooking and waitlisting. Aggregating more patient data, analyzing the demand, and carefully building dynamic decision tree automation can dramatically increase productive time use to ensure time slots don’t go unused.
  • More thoroughly incorporate metrics into clinic planning. Most scheduling systems are set up to view physician time availability as generic—that is, not varying by time of day, day of week, season of the year, geographical location, or most importantly, physician rules and preferences. That said, everything we’ve learned working with over 50 million unique patient appointments annually is that these factors do make a difference! Intelligent scheduling should adapt to specific physician rules and preferences and also anticipate that a physician is often more likely to quickly book time at busy central location A vs. rural location B and build different strategies for filling time when the physician is at location B. Time of day can make a huge difference in patient interest and availability, too, and matching data on patient preferences with physician rules and preferences enables structuring discrete plans and automation rules for maximizing booking in different situations is key to maximizing physician capacity.
  • Build discernment about patient needs and the likely provider services they’ll need into scheduling. A patient with hip pain may benefit from a physical therapist or a hip surgeon, depending on clinical characteristics, and sending that patient to the wrong place wastes time and money for everyone. It is also a drain on the consumer experience which has been shown to have connection to the perceived quality of care.  Instead, incorporate triage directly into the scheduling process. Gather patient data up front so you’ll know that you’ve done everything you can to ensure an office visit is useful as possible for both patient and provider.
  • Save money and add convenience by engaging patients more thoroughly in the appointment process. Talking to a patient on the phone to set—and possibly re-book—an appointment can cost $5-8 for a clinic, not to mention take valuable administrative time that could be used for more valuable activities. Build a digital self-service capability so your office’s default strategy is that patients set up appointments and reschedule them on their own or with the assistance of asynchronous chat. This not only saves organizations money, it gives patients added flexibility, since many of them prefer to book after hours either late at night or early in the morning when your booking staff might not be readily available. An added bonus? More and more patients are starting to demand this kind of self-service technology. A recent KLAS survey found that 67% want the ability to schedule appointments online or through an app, but most healthcare organizations don’t have the capability.
  • Expand scheduling across multiple geographical locations and aggregate data from multiple templates. As insurance payment and industry compliance rules multiply and the number of physician sub-specialties proliferate, many healthcare providers have taken to using very detailed templates for location-specific appointment setting for each physician in their network. This is fine as far as it goes. But too often there’s no visibility across location templates, so managers can’t see whether time is available in different locations or across different specialties. Further, even when they can see if time is available, they often don’t have the needed and appropriate administrative rights to initiate or change bookings. A flexible scheduling system with intelligent rules provides both visibility and access across the organization, while following necessary insurance and compliance regulations as well as clinician’s personal preferences for appointment scheduling. Don’t let your organization become too compartmentalized.
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For many healthcare groups and providers today, long-term obstacles—staffing shortages, physician burnout, rising costs, lower reimbursements, increased competition, growing demand, consumerism—are front and center impacting performance and profitability.

For these provider groups, the ability to provide timely, consistent, and convenient access to patients in outpatient care settings has become an increasingly important differentiator. Leveraging cutting-edge scheduling technology to redefine and reimagine the patient experience has turned out to be an important way to keep customers happy, operate clinics at peak efficiency and grow business

Photo: PixelEmbargo, Getty Images

Jeff Gartland is the CEO of Relatient Inc., a SaaS-based patient scheduling company that utilizes a mobile-first approach to improving relationships between providers and consumers leading to increased revenue and engagement.

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