According to the 2017 MGMA DataDive Practice Operations, practices report that wait times have improved by five minutes from 2016, averaging 20 minutes total between the waiting area and the exam room. For hospital-owned practices, that number drops to an average of 17 minutes.
That’s good news for patients, who frequently cite waiting times as a top complaint, along with communications, billing concerns and staff.
In a March 27, 2018 MGMA Stat poll, medical practice leaders were asked if they had changed processes to reduce patient wait times in the past year. Overall, 49% of respondents answered yes, 22% said they were working on it, 27% said no and the remaining 2% were unsure.
Many of those who answered “no” explained that wait times were “already optimized in previous years” and that they were not an issue in their practice. Of those who answered “yes”, the majority indicated they started utilizing various forms of technology to streamline and improve patient wait times. Respondents described how their organizations “introduced tablets for check-in,” and implemented “pre-registration and pre-eligibility checks before patients arrive.” Also frequently mentioned was how organizations added “evening and weekend hours in primary care” or extended “office appointment slots by 5 minutes each to allow more time per patient.”
As I wrote several years ago in my article “Front office: asset or liability,” you can consider your front office, and specifically the reception area, a great asset or a liability. If you treat your patients well at check-in and checkout, move them through the reception area efficiently and provide a comfortable experience, they will appreciate it. Failing to do so creates challenges for your staff, which may be difficult to overcome.
To optimize your patients’ experience, it’s vital to understand what they need in terms of appointment access, as well as analyzing your historical appointment data to assess trends and plan for the future.
Here are five steps you can take to address patient wait times.
- Develop a baseline. Answer the following questions, then analyze and evaluate.
- What are your wait times?
- How long until the third next available new patient appointment?
- What scheduling model are you employing? What have you used in the past?
- What is the current structure for appointment types and lengths? Are there too many? Too few? Are they different for every provider?
- Follow a patient through your practice. Track their flow with the EHR. What are the results?
- When do patients arrive for their appointments? Early? Late? What is your policy?
Before you can make changes, you must understand what is happening in your practice.
- Conduct a patient satisfaction survey. Consider focus group sessions.
- Improve your communication. According to the MGMA Research & Analysis report: Maximizing Patient Access and Scheduling, 43% of patients surveyed rarely or never know the length of their appointment. Help set your patients’ expectations. Let them know the length of their appointment and how long the wait is when they arrive.
If your wait times tend to be longer, provide the patient with a card stating, “If you’ve been in our reception area more than 25 minutes and haven’t been called, please bring this up to the receptionist.” This gives you an opportunity to reset expectations, as well as apologize for the delay, and most importantly, get feedback from the patient.
- Reduce wait times by increasing hours of access. Consider extending your office hours by scheduling early morning or late evening appointments. By doing so, patients have more options and won’t feel pressed for time.
- Upgrade your technology. Have you looked at kiosks or tablet solutions to increase patient flow and reduce patient wait time? Many practices have found that some of these solutions enable appointment preregistration along with prepayment of a copay one week prior to the appointment. These features improve patient flow dramatically and can accelerate cash flow.
If you are one of the 27% who have not addressed patient wait times, now is the time to begin. The patient experience is an important part of your patients’ visit, and while it’s great to hear that your patients love their doctors, you don’t want to hear that they dislike your staff or the way the office is being run.
To learn more, check out:
- MGMA's consulting services
- MGMA Research & Analysis report: Maximizing Patient Access and Scheduling (a free MGMA member download)
MGMA Stat is a national poll that addresses practice management topics, the impact of new legislation, and related topics. Participation is open to all healthcare professionals. Results of other polls and information on how to participate in MGMA Stat are available here.
Kenneth T. Hertz, FACMPE