Here’s a telling statistic: The average time patients wait in an office to see an otolaryngologist is 24 minutes, according to Press Ganey Associates, Inc., a South Bend, Ind., health care performance measurement and improvement firm. If that doesn’t sound bad, or if you think your practice exceeds that benchmark, consider that otolaryngology ranked 19th in overall satisfaction among 25 medical specialties measured in Press Ganey’s 2010 Medical Practice Pulse Report.
Explore this issue:October 2011
Numbers don’t tell the whole story when examining patient wait times, according to health care management consultant Elizabeth W. Woodcock, MBA, FACMPE, CPC, principal of Woodcock & Associates in Atlanta and author of Mastering Patient Flow: Using Lean Thinking to Improve Your Practice Operations, 3rd Edition (Medical Group Management Association, 2009).
“Everybody thinks they’re efficient, but it’s hard to put on their industrial engineering glasses and be self-reflective,” Woodcock said. True operational improvement requires you to conduct a top-to-bottom evaluation of every operational factor that touches your physicians, including the use of staff, communications systems, appointment scheduling and space design.
Otolaryngologists may worry about their ability to throw resources at these systems, but improving efficiency and decreasing patient wait times aren’t necessarily expensive propositions.
You could, for example, contact a colleague at a highly regarded otolaryngology practice outside your market and ask to spend a half day watching how the practice organizes traffic flow around its physicians. Alternatively, hire a team of MBA or industrial engineering students to create a process improvement program for your practice, Woodcock suggested. Most research universities offer programs that are free to businesses, because the process offers hands-on training for students.
When considering which processes to measure, a scheduler’s adherence to consistent phone etiquette is a good starting point, said Woodcock. Schedulers can help to deflect patient demand for a particular physician and improve overall access by advising callers that they can see another partner in the practice at a particular time the next day or even the same afternoon.
Schedulers should also adjust appointments to each physician’s style. Some physicians are strictly business, while others like to chat with patients informally. Only a physician can change his or her natural style, but the practice manager should analyze each physician’s productivity by tracking the average number of patient visits per hour.