The Art and Science of Patient Scheduling

Good patient scheduling is both an art and a science. How do physicians determine the right amount of time to devote to each patient while limiting wait time? Obviously, efficiency is a goal — but not at the expense of caring for patients. It’s important to take into account personality differences, of both physicians and patients, and the complexity of the medical conditions being addressed — while still keeping the schedule on track.

Choose the best method for you

Physicians commonly use one method, or a combination of a few different ones, when setting up patient scheduling in their offices. The traditional, or “standardized,” approach involves splitting the doctor’s schedule into consistent periods — for example, four 15-minute periods per hour ― and then scheduling one patient into each block.

Sometimes also called “cramming,” the primary drawback of this method is that it doesn’t take into consideration the possibility of emergency patients, no-shows or late arrivals. It also doesn’t account for the fact that some procedures can be performed in five minutes, while others might require 30 minutes.

Another approach is the wave approach. It has a number of variables, but the overall concept is to schedule several patients — for example, six — at the top of each hour. While staff members collect information and vitals from several patients, the physician sees the others. A variation is to spread the six patients over the hour, with two on the hour, two more 20 minutes later and the remaining two about 40 minutes into the hour.

The modified wave approach is similar to the wave. The primary difference is that the last 15 minutes of the hour are intentionally left open. Doing so allows time for dealing with patients who require more attention or any other issues that may arise — building in a break in order to catch up.

Take other factors into account

Practices also sometimes schedule specific days or blocks for certain types of patient visits — for example, some physicians may schedule new-patient visits or annual physicals for a specific day or time of day. Having staff triage a patient’s issues when he or she calls is also beneficial. Staff members who answer the phone may be able to ascertain whether lab tests, X-rays or other types of procedures are needed and, as such, determine whether a longer or shorter time slot might work better.

Scheduling often depends on physician style, the number of physicians and ancillary help. How much ancillary help does the practice have and what is their training? Can some ancillary staff take vitals and triage the patients while the physician sees patients? Can they do this in all cases or only in certain types of cases?

One thing to keep in mind: Physicians (and staff) need to be honest with themselves regarding what works most efficiently in their office. Some doctors are frustrated or bored if they do the same procedure over and over all day long. Others prefer specific lunch and break periods, while some are happy to just grab some food when the schedule permits.

In addition, because medical practices are also businesses, many physicians want to set aside a day, or a block of hours, to attend to business-related issues. Examples may include billing problems, correspondence, staffing matters and continuing medical education.

Effective and efficient

Good patient scheduling is key to a thriving practice. Because there’s no one method that works for everyone, you might have to engage in some trial and error before settling on a system that works best for your practice. And it won’t hurt to revisit your scheduling method from time to time to help maintain the optimal approach.