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4 Easy Tips for Schedule Optimization

By: Nextech | August 10th, 2015

4 Easy Tips for Schedule Optimization Blog Feature

Trying to organize your schedule of patient appointments can be a lot like driving with a cup of hot coffee between your thighs—it can be a refreshing pick-me-up when the cup is filled to a proper level. If the cup is too full, however, you’ll more than likely just get burned (not to mention you’ll have to spend the day with coffee stained pants).  Okay, on second thought, that might not have been the best simile for this particular situation. 

My apologies… it was the best I could come up with off the top of my head.

I guess my point is that scheduling patients can work for you or against you.  The efficiency or inefficiency of patient schedules can affect many aspects of your practice—patient satisfaction, workflow, staff morale, and more.  A badly put together schedule can lead to a waiting room full of angry patients, interruptions in daily workflow, and increasingly frustrated staff. 

Have no fear, however… with just a little bit of effort and the right knowhow, your scheduling problems can be remedied.  In this article, we’re going to look at some proven methods for optimizing your daily patient schedules.

Capitalize on Your “Lead Times”

Sometimes it seems as if people have varying opinions as to what constitutes “being on time.”  For example, let’s say you have a patient scheduled for a 9:00am appointment.  To some patients, this means they will arrive at your office around 8:45am.  Other patients will show up right at 9:00.  Sometimes, doctors are the same.  This is why it is important for everyone in the practice to be clear about “lead times.” 

Continuing with the same example, let’s say the patient arrives at 8:45am for a simple 9:00am follow-up appointment.  Administrative staff may need them to fill out paperwork in the waiting, so that the nurse can bring them into the examination room by 9:00. By the time the patient’s weight, height, and vitals have been taken, he/she likely won’t be ready to be seen by the doctor until 9:15am.  This translates into a “lead time” of 15 minutes, during which the doctor could be completing other tasks.

Physicians who are knowledgeable about their lead times, especially in relation to different patients and appointment types, are more capable of correctly interpreting the “real time” of appointments (meaning the time at which the doctor will actually be seeing the patient).

Always Be Prepared for “Work-Ins”

Looking at your schedule for the next day and seeing all timeslots have been filled is usually a good thing.  It means that all of your practice’s resources are being used, which translates into a profitable day for you.  However, a completely full schedule also means there is little to no wiggle room for scheduling the inevitable work-ins or unexpected same-day appointments that come up.

The best way to prevent this from becoming a problem is to have at least two “protected timeslots,” which are always reserved solely for work-ins or same-day appointments. If your practice is usuallyrunning on a full schedule, these protected timeslots can even be put outside of the regular appointment schedules—for example, the first 30 minutes of the day’s lunch break or immediately following the final appointment of the day.  If your practice rarely has a completely full schedule, you should be able to reserve at least two protected work-in timeslots within your regularly schedule (perhaps those that seem least popular, such as first thing in the morning or just after lunch hours).

Be Reasonable and Realistic

Sometimes, it’s hard to predict how long appointments might take.  For example, let’s say you know that the average time for a certain type of examination is 25 minutes.  This makes it seem like a good idea to schedule appointments for that exam type using a 25 minute standard.  However, an average tends to show the midline between shorter and longer appointments.  That average will include exams that took as little as 15 minutes and longer ones that could have taken as long as 45 minutes.  Therefore, the reasonable thing to do is instead use the average for the top 20% of the longest time lengths as a guide in scheduling appointments for that exam type.

On a related note, sometimes it can be easy to get carried away with the idea that more daily appointments equals more daily revenue.  This can lead to all sorts of structuring issues.  Increasing the number of appointment in a day, without changing lengths, means committing to a longer total workday.  On the other hand, shortening the lengths of appointments can lead to a schedule that looks great on paper but is total chaos in practice (and you will likely end up with a longer total workday, anyway… only with more stress and frustration for you and your staff).

So… what to do?

The answer is simple… be realistic and reasonable.  It is important to have a realistic grasp on the amounts of time required for different procedures/exams, and to structure appointments around this knowledge reasonably.  Scheduling an exam that normally takes 30 minutes into a 25 minute timeslot is not going to change the fact that it is still probably going to take 30 minutes.  In fact, doing this is a great way to lower staff morale.

Remember… If You Don’t Stay On Time, Your Patients Won’t Either

Patients have a tendency to adjust their arrival times to what they perceive as the general punctuality of a practice.  For example, if some patient show up on time but find they just sit in the waiting room for 30 minutes before being called up, they may start showing up 15-20 minutes past their set appointment time to avoid this.  And, since they are always seen late, these patients will consider themselves as on time.  Similarly, if a doctor seems unpredictable with his/her punctuality then patients may begin to feel as if it doesn’t matter when they show up as long as it’s on the day of their appointment.  The end result is that, even when you are on time, you may find yourself waiting for patients who are late arriving.

This is why it is so important to be as on time and consistent with your patient schedule as possible.  Because your patients will treat your schedule based on how you treat it.  If you act as though it does not matter, then your patients will do the same.  If you treat your patient’s time as a priority, however, most will do the same for you.  A timely and consistent attitude toward your appointment schedule also means a reduction in the number of unhappy patients your staff will have to encounter on a daily basis.

Hopefully, this article has given you some helpful tips when it comes to optimizing your daily patient schedules.  Many people tend to feel slighted when they show up on time just to be left waiting for half an hour.  And few enjoy feeling as if they are being rushed in and out of their appointments by an overbooked doctor and/or overwhelmed medical staff.  Maintaining a well put together schedule means a smoother workday for your staff and happier experience for your patients.  I would call that a win-win.