Tackling inefficient healthcare processes to improve patient flow is a priority for planners and operational leaders. But how you move patients through a healthcare facility at greater speed is complex. Poor systems and quick-fix solutions tend to deliver poor results.
Importantly, poor patient flow can be an indicator of deeper problems.
Common well-established practices to improve patient flow exist yet many large healthcare facilities struggle to achieve more than small-scale gains, and often optimize one zone, while sub-optimizing another. Flawed initiatives all too often focus on too small a segment of the patient journey and don’t properly address the broader issues.
We know that patient-flow challenges are complex. So, how do we resolve them?
Here we shine the spotlight on some of the major impediments to patient flow and explore some of the solutions required to overcome them.
Congestion – improving wait times
Stamping out congestion isn’t easy, especially in large busy outpatient centers where footfall can exceed 400 patients in a single day. Wait time is one of the biggest patient flow challenges faced by healthcare providers today – it also happens to be the number one driver of patient satisfaction.
Why are wait times so important right now? Healthcare facilities have faced extraordinary additional pressures during the pandemic. Covid-19 has put patient flow under the spotlight like never before – keeping people safe throughout their healthcare visit and preventing virus transmission is paramount.
So, what can be done?
Improving wait times starts with understanding where and why congestion happens, as well as being able to predict peak times. Visibility in the workflow is essential, because, as we know, in a large outpatient center there could be 100 people spread across several departments at any one time. For the sake of operational efficiency and safety, it is essential to know where people are and be able to track them.
To reduce congestion and wait times, the approach needs to be based on ‘pulling’ people through the system rather than relying on departments to ‘push’ people forwards. A system for patient tracking has become a vital tool. Visibility and communication with patients are key levers for improving patient flow.
The great news is that patient flow solutions are becoming increasingly sophisticated. PatientTrak’s cloud-based software delivers a full 360° view of what is happening on the ground and plenty of tools to ‘push’ people forwards during their care visit. Text messaging during care, for example, is a convenient and effective way to communicate and direct patients to the next steps of care progression, without involving staff and pulling them away from other important tasks.
Addressing the bigger picture
Flow issues are best addressed by exploring processes across the entire facility. Singular solutions, such as an online appointment system, can be helpful, but in isolation, they are often minimal in impact when it comes to patient flow.
It is important to undertake detailed diagnostic work to understand patient flow, rather than jumping straight into redesigning services. Improving flow in one zone of a facility may seem like a win, but it’s not very impactful if those changes have negative repercussions elsewhere.
Take appointment scheduling as an example. There are many great appointment scheduling solutions, but their effectiveness can be watered down if there are other patient engagement issues that need addressing elsewhere in the system. Efficient scheduling doesn’t rule out long wait times, which will still occur if there are bottlenecks impeding the flow of patients through a facility. Nowadays, healthcare facilities need to have visibility of patients beyond the waiting room.
Senior leadership teams in healthcare need to understand the relationships between flow, cost and quality, and have complete visibility to manage large-scale change within a complex system. It means joining the dots between the operational aspects of patient flow (the physical movement of patients through a healthcare visit, alongside the patient experience) and patient satisfaction (surveys, reputation management and so on).
There is no such thing as an ‘ideal patient flow time’, and good patient flow can’t be defined by a particular number of visits per day alone. We’ve established that patient flow is complex. Gaining complete visibility requires a sophisticated software solution.
PatientTrak is one of the few customizable patient tracking and patient flow solutions that magnifies visibility of bottlenecks, offers easy-to-understand reporting, includes a highly refined system for managing online reputation, and provides a host of practical tools designed to elevate the patient experience.
Addressing patient flow isn’t just about the physicality of getting patients through the healthcare journey. It entails patient engagement too. A patient’s attitudes and behaviors can have a significant impact on patient flow.
No shows, patients turning up late or at the wrong time, or even on the wrong day, plays havoc with patient flow. Poor patient engagement alone can be enough to create a vicious circle of disrupted service delivery, poor patient flow and patient dissatisfaction. It’s a frustrating loop for patients, healthcare staff, administrators and physicians. And poor patient engagement doesn’t just impact patient flow, it plays out negatively on reputation too.
It’s a fact that better patient engagement relies on a great patient experience. Keeping patients informed along each step of their healthcare journey from appointment booking, throughout the patient visit to departure is an essential feature of a positive patient experience. Gathering feedback via a post-visit survey is also essential for monitoring patient engagement. How can you fix things if you don’t know what is wrong?
Essentially, patient engagement starts at the beginning.
PatientTrak’s online reservation solution offers patients greater visibility from the outset. They can view accurate wait times, get into the queue and schedule appointments from a provider’s website. This helps to steer patients to the facility with the shortest wait time. It also sets and manages expectations.
In short, solving patient flow issues is reliant on data and effective technology.