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Solutions for Reducing Healthcare Appointment Wait Times for Patients

Long appointment wait times in healthcare can serve as a major dissatisfier for patients.

Long appointment wait times are an age-old problem in healthcare. While some patients find themselves waiting extraordinary times in the office waiting room, others are waiting days, weeks, or even months to get their foot in the door.

Long appointment wait times can have a negative impact on patient satisfaction and healthcare experience.

A 2017 survey from the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) found that the average wait time in clinician practices was 20 minutes. Wait times in hospital-owned physician practices were 17 minutes.

Although these wait times are down an average of five minutes compared to the year before, patients are still looking for organizations to close the gap from the time patients visit the check-in desk to walk into the exam room.

Long wait times can be a considerable detriment to the patient experience. Patients who must wait too long to get into the clinic might see their conditions worsen, potentially compounding complexity of care and healthcare costs.

Waiting a long time for the doctor is also a generally frustrating experience. Research shows that patients use average appointment wait times as one deciding factor when choosing a new clinician.

Long wait times do not have to be unavoidable. Healthcare organizations can adopt a series of strategies to make healthcare access more available for patients and keep wait times down. By using clinic resources more efficiently and tapping technology that helps patients access their care, organizations can work to reduce appointment wait times for patients.

Creating more patient care access

Long appointment wait times arise because healthcare organizations have more patients who need appointments than appointments available. Some practices can overcome this problem by creating more appointments and patient care access.

In some cases, tapping non-physician clinicians – physician assistants and nurse practitioners – will fill in the gaps. These medical professionals undergo rigorous schooling and can easily treat some medical conditions. By expanding patient panels to these clinicians, organizations make it easier for patients to see a medical professional.

Organizations can also employ patient education strategies to help patients triage themselves. For example, the emergency department is notorious for overcrowding and extraordinary wait times. Healthcare organizations can educate patients about times when visiting urgent care or a retail clinic is more appropriate than visiting the ED.

Currently, most patients do not understand that distinction, according to a 2017 survey from New York City-based urgent care provider CityMD. The survey presented 2,000 adult patients with medical scenarios and asked patients to choose urgent care or the ED.

While some scenarios indicated that patients understood the differences between urgent care, others revealed disparities in patient understanding.

Patients frequently had a difficult time deciding if they should go to the ER or urgent care center when presenting with non-life-threatening emergencies treatable in urgent care settings.

For example, only 46 percent of respondents correctly selected urgent care as the appropriate choice for a scenario in which a child is presenting with 104-degree fever, shivering, and coughing.

Better patient education about self-triage is important to ensure patients do not seek unnecessarily high-level care. Organizations should review these treatment options with patients and provide educational materials reviewing patient needs.

Improved appointment scheduling, appointment access

Organizations must address the root issue of general appointment availability to better address long wait times. Long wait times arise when there are more patients seeking care than appointments available. That supply-and-demand balancing act coupled with triaging appointment availability is a challenge for organizations.

Many medical practices are revamping their appointment scheduling processes to make it easier for patients to get into clinic. Digital appointment scheduling and more open call centers allow patients to schedule their appointments when it is most convenient for patients. Making it easy to contact schedulers in the office can eventually reduce the number of patient no-shows.

Other offices are taking this a step further by restructuring how they allocate appointments. Open access appointment scheduling makes for a more efficient office because doctors begin the day with their schedules free. Patients call in for what are mostly same-day appointments.

When doctors do today’s work today, they see fewer backups and it is easier to fit in urgent cases, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Two researchers from Kaiser Permanente found that open access scheduling reduced their appointment wait times from 55 days to one day.

“To succeed, physicians must suspend what they have thought forever,” the researchers reported. “In health care, it is genetically encoded that ‘if you are really sick, we will see you today; if you are not really sick, you can wait.’ Advanced access eliminates the distinction between urgent and routine and requires that practices ‘do all of today's work today.’ That's the motto.”

Using patient pre-registration

Once in the clinic, patients want to see their clinicians quickly. Waiting a long time to enter the exam room is a significant dissatisfier for patients.

Organizations are able to overcome those long wait times by strictly adhering to their schedule and ensuring there is plenty for appointment access. Streamlining office organization will also improve those wait times.

When office managers need to register individuals as patients and collect patient information at the point of care, it can stall the appointment and hinder the rest of the day’s schedule. Patient pre-registration can streamline this process.

Office managers should contact patients days before an appointment to collect important patient information. Phone calls, emails, patient portal messages, and mailed forms are excellent ways to reach a patient for these purposes.

Pre-registration materials should include updates to health insurance status, updates to medical conditions or medications, updates in family history, and other important changes in health status.

When hospitals can streamline this process, they make the in-office portion of the appointment easier. Less of the exam is used on collecting materials that can otherwise be collected prior to the meeting, making it less likely that the office will fall behind.

Improving satisfaction with transparency

There may be times where a clinic falls behind or a patient has to wait longer than anticipated to see their providers. While organizations must adopt strategies to decrease the frequency at which that happens, there may be slip ups.

Organizations must be transparent with patients in these cases. Part of an office manager’s job should be surveying the waiting room for patients who have been waiting more than a set amount of time – about 15 minutes in primary care clinics. Office managers should update those patients and apologize for the delay.

Patients value transparency in these areas. Open communication also creates opportunities for office workers to create other areas of patient satisfaction and better helps them address patient issues.

Long appointment wait times are a noteworthy issue in the healthcare industry. They impact patients at all different levels, and can serve as a dissatisfier for all patients. By reorganizing appointment access, availability, and office management, healthcare practices can work to reduce those long wait times and improve the patient experience with care.

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