MedCity Influencers, Health Tech

How to Rein in Unpredictability During High-Traffic Respiratory Illness Season

Making operational changes to ease the unpredictable nature of respiratory season is the right thing to do for staff, for patients, and for the business. Digital solutions and better processes allow staff to work smarter and faster and prepare them for high-volume days ahead of time so they feel in control.

‘Tripledemic’ concerns have been on the rise with the collision of flu, Covid-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) wreaking havoc in clinics and hospitals. Yet staff are expected to provide smooth, fast, and effective care journeys for all, no matter the volume of patients. We know, however, that everything doesn’t always go as planned when patient traffic explodes. Bottlenecks like long wait times and limited appointment options inevitably skyrocket, and staff bear the brunt of patients who (understandably) want to be seen immediately, in conjunction with staff members intermittently being out sick themselves.

Living in an environment of extreme health unpredictability affects everyone involved in the patient journey, including clinical staff, providers, administrators, payers, government agencies, and more. Everyone who plays a role in the patient’s journey is navigating their own waterfall effect when chaos beats out calmness—and it ultimately impacts the patient’s experience as well as their trust in the system.

There are ways to mitigate unpredictability in the urgent care setting, which help to meet patient expectations while also helping staff maintain control and confidence throughout their days.

Patient expectations are evolving 

Patient expectations are all about speed, convenience, and quality of care now. Research shows that more than 81% of consumers want healthcare to be as easy as shopping for other standard services.

One aspect of the patient experience that’s gained considerable traction is online appointment booking. Regardless of if the clinic is busy or slow, patients appreciate the ability to book and register ahead of the visit so they can spend less time filling out paperwork in the waiting room. Pre-registration has become so paramount to the clinical setting that an Urgent Care Association survey found that it’s the top reason consumers would leave one urgent care brand for another. Our data at Solv also shows that, in 2022, one in two consumers registered online before their appointments.

Along with this speed and convenience, clinical staff still must focus on reliability, credibility, and intimacy throughout the care journey. Fortunately, using various technologies and leveling up communications makes this possible—and makes predicting the unpredictable more likely, even during the high-traffic respiratory season.

Five strategies to mitigate unpredictability 

Winter is a volatile season and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when managing a high volume of patients without the right practices and processes in place.

Here are five best practices to consider implementing to help navigate this respiratory season:

  1. Offer expanded online availability to maximize care numbers: An ideal ratio of book-ahead appointments versus walk-ins is 70/30%. If a provider can see five patients an hour, they might be scheduling two online appointments and three walk-ins. During the respiratory season, however, they can gain more control if they schedule four online appointments and hold the final slot for a walk-in. Capacity per provider doesn’t change, but rather the behavior and predictability involved with scheduling. Expanding online availability for patients also gives patients a better experience by having more options to choose from that work for their schedule.
  2. Practice load balancing with digital solutions: Today’s digital solutions that enable capabilities like SMS chat and low-acuity triage can help ensure each minute is spent wisely. Smart solutions can intelligently queue both online bookings and walk-ins, for example, so if there’s a rush of walk-ins one day, the platform knows not to offer up too many online appointments on the same day. Leaders should adopt load-balancing platforms and decompression strategies that allow their clinics to see the maximum number of patients without burying staff.
  3. Tap into telemedicine and convenient testing options: The ability for patients to see a provider for low-acuity complaints via a telemedicine platform allows for more patients to be seen. The average in-person visit time is around 17 minutes, whereas telemedicine visits are closer to 12 minutes. Convenient curbside tests also improve speed of care and satisfaction by reducing logistical challenges and creating a smoother, seamless patient flow. Both strategies help to prevent the spread of viruses as well, which is a win for everyone during an especially bad respiratory illness season.
  4. Monitor patient trends for better decision-making and staffing plans: To gain a better understanding of when a surge is coming, clinics should leverage patient data to identify trends: search activity, booking page engagements, cancellations, and no-shows. Leaders might find that one clinic tends to have a higher number of cancellations and no-shows, for example, which typically ties back to human behavior in the clinic. They can then investigate and understand how to fix the issue so that they can retain steady patient volume and improve patient satisfaction.
  5. Monitor operational trends and make adjustments accordingly: Staffing, hourly throughput, supplies, and surge workflows can all be optimized if a clinic understands what data is important, how often to check it, and how to use it for decision-making. Let’s say the receptionist doesn’t verify certain information correctly so they collect less revenue at the point of service than required, which creates a longer collections process. Leaders can closely monitor this during high-volume seasons and implement training so staff can course correct as needed.

Take back control 

Making operational changes to ease the unpredictable nature of respiratory season is the right thing to do for staff, for patients, and for the business.

Digital solutions and better processes allow staff to work smarter and faster and prepare them for high-volume days ahead of time so they feel in control. Patients appreciate more availability for appointments, more options for how to book them, and alternative telemedicine channels that work well for their low-acuity complaints, and their loyalty will prove it. Being able to predict patient volumes is good for business, too—it increases the ability to forecast intelligently and perform profitably while also reducing unexpected costs and preventing revenue leakages.

When a few operational improvements create substantial wins for staff, patients, and the business, it’s time to take action to rein in unpredictability.

Photo: dragana991, Getty Images

April Gillam is Head of Industry Relations at Solv, a national network of healthcare providers making same-day and next-day healthcare accessible to anyone. Previously the chief operating officer of a successful chain of pediatric urgent cares and telemedicine platform, she has been instrumental in scaling processes, people, and business development execution. After developing collegiate Covid-19 testing programs for the Big XII conference, American Athletic conference, and the College Football Playoff Committee in 2020, April made the transition from urgent care leadership into digital transformation leadership at Solv. She holds a seat on the Urgent Care Association Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion commission.

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