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One of the most important aspects of a successful practice is having a functional scheduling protocol. Effective scheduling can have many positive benefits for both the practice and patients. From the practice perspective, efficient patient scheduling helps with maintaining productivity while increasing revenue through efficiency and patient satisfaction. From the patient perspective, good scheduling creates a positive experience, characterized by reduced wait times and seamless transitions within the practice. These benefits can lead to a positive office culture—something patients can sense as soon as they arrive for their appointment.

It Takes Effort

A functioning schedule does not happen by accident. It requires complete understanding, “buy-in,” and dedication from all practice staff and providers. This article highlights five key actions to consider and implement when evaluating or making changes to the patient schedule so it can run at its best.

Action 1: Conduct a time audit.

Before making any adjustments to the patient schedule, you must first understand your practice’s baseline. Consider performing a time study. Determining the actual time each provider takes for each service—and calculating corresponding averages—can give your practice invaluable hard metrics. Not only can the figures identify bottlenecks, but they can be used to build a more effective schedule (see Actions 2 and 3). Conduct time studies regularly to appropriately account for provider and service changes within the practice over time.

Action 2: Schedule with appointment types in mind.

Scheduling staff must understand the length of time needed for every procedure and/or consultation as well as the pace/specifics of each provider within the practice. This is where the time study results come into play. Using that data from the study, staff can enter appointments into the schedule at appropriate openings to build an effective lineup. Ideally, your practice should have a scheduling template that differentiates between brief, intermediate, and long appointments:

  • Brief appointments: Five minutes or less.
  • Intermediate appointments: Five to 20 minutes.
  • Long appointments: 20 minutes or more.

You may also want to consider visually color coding the schedule to emphasize the different appointment types and/or provider schedules. This can facilitate efficient preparation for upcoming patients as well as provide an effective on-the-spot evaluation of the schedule for the entire practice. The reason for the patient’s visit should also be included on the schedule, which allows providers the opportunity to better evaluate the schedule, as well as pace themselves throughout the day.

Action 3: Establish a daily patient goal.

Results from the time study can also inform the practice of its patient capacity. When the practice understands how many patients it can accommodate based on appointment type and provider pace, staff are able to work toward meeting that capacity. This enables attainable patient scheduling goals to be set and followed. Often practices will set a daily goal for the number of new patient consults, as those meetings often require more time with the provider. Staggering new patient appointments throughout the day helps to limit the effect on the overall schedule and allows each provider to spend the necessary time with each patient—new or existing.

Data to Track

Besides tracking time in order to enhance patient scheduling, there are other data points practices can gather to build an effective, robust schedule.

  • Source of patient referrals. Are new patients coming through word-of-mouth, digital marketing efforts, social media promotions, or by other means? Finding out this information can help the practice better target and reach potential new clients to further diversify its patient schedule.
  • Reason for no-show. Are patients not showing up because they had a scheduling conflict or is it because of something else? Knowing the reason can help to determine a possible common variable leading to no-shows. If one is discovered, the practice can then take strides to resolve the issue, thereby creating a more set schedule.

Action 4: Confirm appointments in advance.

On-time arrivals are essential for patients being seen on time and maintaining practice flow. Confirming appointments 24-48 hours in advance is one way to provide excellent customer service and proactively manage the schedule. Contacting patients prior to an appointment can also help build rapport and provide a point of contact should they need one. There are electronic services available for a fee to assist with this, thereby, preventing it from becoming an additional administrative task for staff. Meanwhile, this confirmation system provides patients the opportunity to notify the practice in advance of cancelations, thereby reducing no-show rates.

No-shows are inconvenient and costly to the practice, as they result in missed scheduling opportunities. Knowing in advance of potential no-shows allows the practice to make alternative plans so that appointment slots do not go unfilled.

Action 5: Prepare for sudden schedule changes.

No-shows along with cancelations, emergency, or post-treatment/surgical complication appointments, and sudden VIP patient meeting requests are situations that every practice experiences when it comes to scheduling. Creating and maintaining a list of patients who have a future appointment but are willing to come in early can be useful, especially in the event of no-shows and cancellations. To create that list, have the staff member who’s scheduling the appointment ask if the patient would like to be put on a waiting list to potentially be seen sooner. If your software system or digital platform allows, you can send out a reminder to patients on the list to maximize time efficiency.

Meanwhile, the practice should allow for a minimum of schedule overrides for VIP patients. No more than two or three staff members/administrators should have this ability. Without limitations on overrides, patient flow can be disrupted and cause long patient wait times. Squeezing in emergency or post-treatment/surgical patients should be carefully evaluated by the administrator. Generally, these appointments are preferable at the end of the morning or afternoon. Allow time to meet frequently and review the schedule with the providers and the staff to ensure a smooth flow.

Firing on All Cylinders

Effective scheduling is important to maintaining business success and patient satisfaction. For these reasons, regularly evaluate and tweak the practice schedule where needed. An effective schedule is one that is full but allows for flexibility. When this scheduling pinnacle is reached, watch the practice run like a well-oiled machine, firing on all cylinders.

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