Minimizing Wait Times

09 Jan 2018

For many patients, scheduling a doctor’s appointment is an unnecessarily frustrating task. First, there is the challenge of scheduling an appointment on a day that fits into their often busy calendar. Then, even when they find the perfect appointment, there is only more frustration on the day of the appointment. Patients often arrive on time for their appointment only to wait an additional thirty minutes to an hour for the doctor to see them. For many people these long wait times occur all too often. Therefore, minimizing wait times, and the discontent that they cause, should be an important goal of medical practices if they wish to increase patient satisfaction. Recently, various software suites and online systems have been developed to allow doctors to reduce wait times by optimizing appointment scheduling. Although using these systems may be one of the most successful ways to reduce wait times, some practices may find this software too costly. Fortunately, there are other methods of minimizing wait times, such as simply changing certain office policies regarding patient scheduling.

Often, the main cause of increased wait times is patient no-shows. Doctors wait for patients who never show which only pushes back appointments and increases wait times. One of the most effective methods to prevent no-shows, and therefore minimize wait times, is to move to an online scheduling system. Using such a system has advantages for both practices and patients. For medical practices, allowing patients to schedule their own appointments reduces the workload of secretarial staff which saves time and money. Automated scheduling systems also help to prevent no-shows as they require patients to confirm a few days in advance that they are still able to make the appointment. Some more advanced systems even offer schedule optimization tools. These tools analyze patient histories to determine who is least likely to make their appointment. The time slot of this likely no-show patient is then kept open, allowing another patient to double book the appointment time. This double booking allows the doctor to avoid wasting time waiting for a patient that never arrives. Many patients also prefer online scheduling because it is more convenient. Patients can log on to the system any time of day and easily see when the doctor is available, rather than calling only when the office is open and going back and forth with a secretary to find an appointment. In addition, because many patients prefer these online systems, practices that embrace these new technologies are often more attractive to new patients. Unfortunately, while these online systems are extremely useful, they can often be very costly.

Even if an appointment scheduling software suite is too expensive for your practice, there are a few other simple ways to reduce wait times. Recent practitioner surveys have found that the two main causes of increased wait times are late patient arrivals and unexpected patient issues. Patients arriving late push back other scheduled appointments and unexpected patient issues extend appointments longer than expected. In order to prevent these potential issues from occurring, doctors can implement a few simple policy changes to be better aware of their patients’ situations. For example, creating and enforcing a tardiness policy has been shown to reduce late arrivals. Many doctors send warning letters if patients are late for multiple appointments and some even ask patients to find another doctor if they are excessively late. Another policy change would require patients to fill out paperwork before their visit describing their condition, symptoms, and reason for the appointment. This allows the doctor to better understand how to treat their patient and to plan how long the appointment will take. Implementing these policy changes is clearly an easy method of reducing wait times.

Unfortunately for doctors, taking all patients exactly on time is an impossible task. However, those practitioners that follow the above recommendations may soon see their patients’ wait times reduced and satisfaction increased!

This article was also featured in Best Practices Vol. 14