At a Glance
- Inefficient patient communication, including long wait times, can damage a medical practice’s reputation and staff retention, affecting patient satisfaction, employee engagement, and revenue.
- Optimizing patient flow through online scheduling is crucial for enhancing the patient experience and practice efficiency.
- To address common patient flow challenges, practices can improve communication, address staffing shortages, optimize appointment scheduling, reduce wait times, and leverage digital tools.
When a patient is hurt or sick, all they want is to get better. Yet too often, they face lengthy and taxing processes in the patient care journey from arrival to discharge. It’s exhausting — especially when they’re unwell. Online patient communication and better scheduling could be your answer.
A crowded clinic might seem profitable, but it doesn’t mean your business is efficient. In fact, it can damage your reputation and hurt your bottom line.
Some patients might not like being stuck in a slow-moving queue — and might remember that experience when deciding whether to return. Inefficient processes can also strain your staff at a time when medical staff retention is a challenge.
Any delays in the patient care journey impact patient health outcomes and satisfaction, employee engagement and turnover, and total revenue.
Moving forward, optimizing patient flow management through better communication and online patient scheduling will be crucial to maximizing the patient experience and your practice’s efficiency.
Common causes of patient flow challenges in a medical practice
Many healthcare facilities struggle with patient flow challenges, typically characterized by long wait times, crowded waiting rooms, and patient dissatisfaction.
Here’s an overview of some of the common causes.
Poor communication among your staff and with patients can negatively affect patient flow and health outcomes.
Of communication failures, 53% were between providers and patients and 47% were between service providers, according to a study by Wolters Kluwer Health.
Incomplete or inaccurate information shared during shift changes accounted for 40% of communication failures, with diagnosis and illness severity cited among the most frequently miscommunicated information types.
Communication failures can also lead to delays in essential tests or to patients receiving the wrong treatment, procedure, or medication, hampering patient health outcomes.
The staffing shortage was the top concern in 2022. A year later, the healthcare industry is still reeling from reduced staffing.
At smaller private clinics, the struggle to retain good medical workers is worse, owing to constant crowding, poor staff scheduling, and stressful shifts. Employees end up performing an unsustainable balancing act that leaves them fatigued and burned out, further exacerbating staff shortages.
For example, a nurse may be asked to take on administrative tasks on top of their patient assignments, leading to suboptimal patient care, reduced patient satisfaction, and decreased revenue.
Of physician-owned practices, 44% struggle to meet patient demand following the Great Resignation, according to a recent data summary report by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA). This has resulted in:
- Fewer unique patients
- Difficulties managing claim denials
- Backlogs of unpaid claims
- Increase in outstanding accounts receivables and bad debts
- Lost potential revenue
Provider and staff availability
When there aren’t enough physicians or nurses to go around, the patient flow becomes impossible to predict. Physicians become overworked, rushing from one appointment to another and drowning in paperwork.
Physicians’ availability may be limited for several reasons, particularly where the physician:
- Has to leave to attend to a personal emergency
- Is slower by nature
- Is new to the practice or not fully acquainted with the workflow
- Is at a conference or out on vacation
All these can disrupt patient flow, placing undue pressure on staff members.
Time management and unplanned emergencies
Poor time management and unplanned emergencies can cause a chain reaction. Patients are kept waiting, physicians and staff members get stressed, and work becomes less enjoyable.
“The engine of the practice can only handle so much,” says Drew Sutton, a board-certified ENT physician. “Some practices have wait times because they don't have providers who can handle the volume of patients or the providers available are so busy."
“The engine of the practice can only handle so much. ”
Sometimes, a patient may come in unexpectedly for a minor procedure, like a laceration repair. Ideally, the appointment would be rescheduled for a “procedure day,” but sometimes the patient can’t wait.
Sutton notes that some patients may have an urgent need, have been referred by another physician, or may come in for one issue and the physician recognizes another pressing problem — whether or not they have an appointment.
“This need for extra patient care cannot be avoided in some cases,” Sutton says.
All these and other unplanned emergencies further impact time management and patient flow in a practice.
Tight operational budgets make it harder for medical practices to expand their workforce with competitive pay, or implement smart technologies that increase patient satisfaction.
Deloitte’s 2023 outlook for healthcare reports that health systems will likely keep facing financial difficulties, owing to ongoing staffing problems, rising inflation, and elevated expenses.
Physician-owned medical practices may end up joining health systems, insurance companies, larger practices, or private-equity groups to protect themselves financially.
The challenges medical practices face can seem like a never-ending uphill and discouraging battle. But you can incorporate some best practices to overcome these roadblocks. Let’s explore them.
Best practices for managing patient flow and volume in a clinic
Juggling clinical and operational tasks can leave you strapped for time and distract you from scaling up your business.
Luckily, you can optimize patient processes to deliver high-quality, timely care and to ensure efficient patient flow.
Below are different approaches to help you rise above the challenges and achieve the growth you want for your medical practice.
How to optimize patient appointment scheduling
Clinic administrators often schedule for rigid time blocks, which don’t match the reality of how the patient schedule flows throughout the day — some show up early, some late, while others are no-shows. This unpredictability can stress and frustrate your staff.
“Physicians [...] need to pay attention to and take responsibility for appointment scheduling. ”
But these aren’t the only causes of unpredictability.
"There’s the impossible factor of knowing beforehand how many questions or concerns the patient may have or whether they want to talk about the weather,” says Sutton. “However, physicians also need to pay attention to and take responsibility for patient appointment scheduling.”
Depending on the nature of the visit, estimating how long it will take can often be a guess. "A post-operative check, for example, may be much different than a new cancer patient visit. And, a visit for a patient who is in cancer remission is much different than one when the patient requires further treatment," Sutton says.
Online patient scheduling optimizes the appointment booking process. Patients can book clinic appointments with a few simple taps or clicks on a mobile device or computer.
With online patient scheduling tools, you can:
- Drive new patient acquisition and longer-term practice growth
- Fill appointment gaps
- Reduce logistical hurdles when phone lines are tied up or your office is closed
- Reduce phone tag, no-shows, late cancellations, schedule mix-ups, and other disruptions
- Ease the burden of administrative tasks for employees, so they can deliver a better in-office patient experience
How to reduce wait times with online patient scheduling
The waiting period can be the worst part of the doctor’s visit and a reason patients switch providers. About 33% of patients have switched providers for shorter wait times, according to Tebra’s 2023 Patient Perspectives report.
The same goes for appointment availability. It takes about 26 days for a new patient to get a medical appointment on the calendar. This is true particularly for specialties like dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology (OB/GYN), and cardiology, according to Merritt Hawkins.
Here are some ways to improve patient wait times through online patient scheduling:
- Provide digital patient intake forms: Add an intake form button to your practice’s website and/or mobile app, so patients can submit their personal details online. You’ll reduce errors, give patients more privacy, and save your staff time.
- Offer digital check-in options: Online check-in options help patients complete clinical information, consent forms, and disclosures on their mobile devices prior to an appointment.
- Automate appointment reminders: Reduce late appointments, cancellations, and no-shows by sending automated, recurring appointment reminders via phone call, email, or text message (SMS). It ensures you stay connected with your patients and improve patient attendance. Plus, it frees your front office staff from manual reminder calls, giving them more time to focus on key tasks.
- Adopt telehealth: Telehealth and in-person diagnoses match up nearly 90% of the time, according to a study from Mayo Clinic researchers. Reduce schedule unpredictability and administrative tasks by offering video telemedicine and remote patient monitoring alongside in-person follow-ups.
- Embrace a mobile queue: Offer patients mobile queues to keep them updated about their position and give them greater control over their time. It’s also a great way to manage patient flow and improve operational efficiency.
How to drive cost savings using digital tools
Patients want the same ease and convenience when accessing healthcare services as they would when calling an Uber.
Of consumers, 79% want to manage all their healthcare activities from a unified digital platform, according to a PYMTS study. This includes everything from setting appointments to accessing their health information and financial statements, to making payments, and more.
Here are some ways to save costs by digitizing the patient experience:
- Use electronic health records: Electronic health records (EHRs) contain a wealth of data, which can provide helpful insights into patient flow. Use these insights to repair all possible patient flow gaps, minimize overcrowding, and deliver more comprehensive, sustainable care.
- Offer a secure patient portal: Your patient’s health is important — not just during business hours. Provide a secure, free-to-use portal where you can electronically store critical health information, making it easy for patients to access their medical records at any time.
- Offer secure messaging: Secure messaging is a safe, convenient, cost-effective, and fast way to communicate with patients, staff, and other providers. It also streamlines patient scheduling processes, keeping wait times low and staff use optimal.
- Implement digital billing: Give patients text-to-pay and email-to-pay options instead of mailing paper statements or calling them about their balances. Digital wallets, like Google Pay and Apple Pay, give patients a quick, convenient, and secure way to pay bills while reducing paperwork.
Promote a healing environment
Crowded waiting rooms and long wait times are expected in healthcare facilities — but shouldn’t be the norm in your practice.
Optimizing the patient process through online patient scheduling and other digital tools can reduce patient attrition, drive new patient referrals, cut costs, and boost practice growth.
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Learn how to create a seamless patient experience that increases loyalty and reduces churn, while providing personalized care that drives practice growth in Tebra’s free guide to optimizing your practice.