What is patient flow?
Patient flow is basically the way your patients move around from the minute they arrive at your practice until the minute they drive away. This includes everything from finding your facility to parking to check-in and more. Improving patient flow is a critical to the success of any healthcare organization.
Why does patient flow matter?
Improving patient flow has been proven to be an important factor in practice success. According to one study, patient-flow strategies can ensure practices operate at full capacity, reduce costs, and boost revenue. In addition, when patients can easily locate and navigate a practice, see a doctor without waiting long, and generally have a positive experience, you can expect results. Their satisfaction, engagement, and retention rates will improve.
What are some ways to improve and optimize patient flow?
There are a few things to keep in mind when working to create an optimal patient flow in your practice.
1. Make it obvious. Patients should never need to think about where they are supposed to be. Take a few minutes to write down every possible place that patients may need to be in your office. Start by parking outside and go through the entire process. Then create places you want to put signs to direct patients. These may be in the parking lot, lobby, exam rooms, and so on. You can include signs to let patients know where to go for check-in and check-out, bathrooms, specialty services, and more. One great way to figure out if you've got any confusing spots is to ask a few friends (preferably look for those who may have trouble...the elderly, families with lots of kids, etc) who have never been to your practice to give it a try. If they have trouble, you know where you may need some extra signage.
2. Remove bottlenecks. The biggest enemy of an optimal patient flow is the dreaded bottleneck. A few common causes of bottlenecks include:
- Phone calls. When your front desk staff is on the phone, patients are forced to wait.
- Over scheduling. No matter how amazing your patient flow plan is, if you are regularly over-scheduling (or poorly scheduling), you are going to run into problems. If you want some tips to create efficient scheduling, read our blog post on the topic here.
- Basic functionality. Let's use the scale as an example here.
3. Don't cross the streams. Why? As Egan from the Ghostbusters would warn us, "It would be bad." When patients cross paths with one another — while checking in and checking out, for instance — it not only annoys patients, but slows down your entire process. Consider separating your check-in and check-out areas. You could even create different areas in your practice based on appointment type. One common method for this is to create different routes for sick patients vs. healthy ones (or those coming for regular care).
Good flow needs to move patients efficiently from the waiting room to the exam rooms in order to reduce patient wait times and improve efficiency. According to a study in the journal Pain Medicine, when staff at John Hopkins Outpatient Center were assigned cases the day before patient visits, patient wait time, flow time, and appointment time all fell.
4. Make room for your staff. Obviously, every healthcare practice is not just filled with patients, but staff as well. And—as we well know—those staff members are moving around almost all of the time! Try to create room for them to travel freely without any slowdowns.
Some practices have created stations where doctors or nurses can quickly write-up their notes after a visit without needing to travel back to an office. One practice prefers stand-up stations for doctors, located close to work stations where medical assistants can provide necessary back-up. These stand-up work stations keep doctors in the middle of the flow, enable them to complete notes quickly, view records, and then move on.
Do you have more than one specialty in your practice? If so, take extra time to think about the hand-off between specialties. It's not uncommon for the flow to become interrupted as patients move from one area to another. Consider these questions...Do patients need to change clothes? Switch floors? Go to another waiting area? These are all signs that you need to change your flow. Experiment with ways to make the transition as smooth as possible so that the patient feels like they have only been there for one visit.
5. Don't forget your supply path. What about your supply movement? Your medical supplies should contribute to a smooth flow for patients and doctors. There are multiple options that would work for your supply flow. You can use a single, central storage area. You could put the supplies in each individual room or even use carts that move from one location to another.
It doesn't really matter which way you pick. The key is to make sure that supplies (or lack thereof!) never slow down the flow and efficiency of your organization.