“ Doctor’s schedule changes and changes often. Technology should make it easy for changing everything, keep it current, and more importantly communicating the change instantly to stakeholders”

Patient flow management is a subject that often receives less attention than it deserves. However, it is one of the key areas that influence patient satisfaction. More importantly, a well-planned and effective patient flow management strategy enables you to save time, reduces stress in your practice – something that cannot be valued.

 Often times, there has been a tendency to think that very little can be done to manage patient flow. It’s an occupational hazard – something to live with. A lot of doctors will provide various scenarios for how things go wrong.

The problem starts with the patient seeking appointments in different ways, unexpected walk-ins, urgent appointments, VIP patients, lack of well-skilled staff for managing the schedule, lack of transparency in queues, patient arguments, doctors and patients unable to keep the promise of the schedule. Too many issues. As one of the specialist doctors quite eloquently put it, “It’s as if you are trying to create a calm, serene pond in the middle of the Himalayan rapids”.

 All is not lost – yet.

Let’s accept one thing. Doctor appointment scheduling is a hard problem. There is no silver bullet. Bad things happen. And there will be angry patients. There will be bad days. However, the way to look at this is – can I cushion the blow? Can I solve 80% of the issues? Can I implement a better patient flow management strategy if not the ideal one?

 The solution lies in the intersection of technology, process, and people. Often technology helps in packaging the best processes and embodies collective learning. People are needed to implement the technology.

The underlying philosophy of the solution is – “doctor’s schedule changes and changes often. Technology should make it easy for changing everything, keep it current, and more importantly communicating the change instantly to stakeholders”

I submit the following 5 key strategies, which can be used to make patient flow management easier.

 Firstly, most importantly, has a central real-time shared calendar – all appointments in one place. No clashes. If you are visiting multiple locations, the calendar should be powerful enough to manage multiple locations. Technology tool should be capable of allowing you to specify your schedule, slots, change the configuration in real-time.

 Secondly, identify the channels through which patients reach out to you. Phone, Internet, and Walk-ins are the main channels. Identify a tool that integrates all three in a real-time calendar. Technology is available today; where a personalized automated IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system answers a patient call, looks up your calendar, announces time, and on selection communicates via text message and email the time of the appointment. The same calendar is available on the Internet. The staff has full visibility of the doctor’s schedule.

Thirdly, reserve enough slots for walk-ins to avoid your schedule going haywire. Do not fill up everything with appointments. Communicate your honest emotions to patients who do not turn up for appointments respectfully (ex: Please cancel appointments so that you can free up the slot for other patients)

Fourthly, communicate any changes in the schedule by canceling text messages/emails. Patients accept that doctors can get busy with emergencies and they love knowing about changes to the schedule beforehand so that they can plan accordingly.

Finally, improve transparency in your clinic/hospital by displaying the patient queue using overhead screens that indicate ‘who is next’. Keep the power to change queues if needed.

This one is a bonus – No matter how good a scheduling system, you have, things will go wrong on a bad day. But, overall, you will make more people happier than upset.

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