What is Patient Flow?

September 2nd, 2021 — PatientTrak Marketing

Patient flow is one of the biggest challenges healthcare providers face today. 

The focus on the patient journey through any healthcare facility has become even greater since the pandemic. 

So, what is patient flow, what factors disrupt it and what are the solutions?

What is patient flow?

busy hospital - Patient Flow - PatientTrak

Patient flow is the movement of patients through an outpatient facility from arrival to discharge.  Patient flow is the process of patient care through multiple steps of healthcare delivery ensuring patients receive the care they need.

It assesses the ability of a healthcare system to serve patients quickly and efficiently as they move through different stages of their care visit and is an important factor for patient experience, patient satisfaction, staff efficiency and ROI.

Why is patient flow important?

Patient flow is important for a number of reasons:

  • Patient safety – not having patients build up anywhere in the process for fear of COVID transmission is now a huge issue
  • Timekeeping – Patient wait times are the number one influencer of patient satisfaction
  • Service efficiency – in huge outpatient centers, there may be up to 500 people attending, split across 15 or so departments in one day, with many accessing different services during the same visit
  • Staff efficiency – poor patient flow means staff spend more time on the phone trying to check where patients are and resolve problems
  • Patient engagement – health outcomes are affected when patients miss appointments

What disrupts patient flow?

There are many different reasons why patient flow – the patient’s journey through the healthcare system – might be adversely affected. Let’s consider patient flow in a large outpatient facility.

When a patient enters the outpatient building, which may or may not be integrated into a hospital, or is introduced to the outpatient administration system, it involves medical care, physical resources, and internal systems to get patients from the point of entry and through their schedule of care.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of things that can affect efficiency when it comes to the patient journey from congestion and wait times, to poor allocation of resources, and utilization of a physician’s time. There is often a lack of visibility over the flow between different facilities, such as lab, x-ray and chemotherapy, for example. And some outpatient centers may be spread over several buildings.

Many outpatients travel long distances and have several appointments covered in a single day. And there may be three to four hundred patient appointments scheduled in one day. It only takes one outpatient department to fall behind schedule and it has a knock-on effect for the others.

When it comes to capacity, even the outpatient centers with expanded facilities, ample space and plentiful staff resources can still succumb to issues of poor administration of patient arrivals and flow. Inefficient scheduling can cause havoc to patient flow. While waiting areas are being managed much more stringently now because of Covid-19, a back-up of patients waiting to be seen can still occur.

What is the impact of poor patient flow?

When the steady throughput of patients is disrupted, the consequences can range from minor inconvenience to extreme patient dissatisfaction and even people missing flights home. Any delay in care is at best a minor irritant to patients, and in the worst-case scenario, irreversibly damaging to a facility’s reputation

Poor patient flow also puts additional strain on hospital staff, the long-term effects of which lead to stress-related illness and burnout, putting yet further pressure on patient flow.

Let’s take this simple scenario as an example:

Patient A has an appointment for an MRI and needs to have some tests taken at the Lab, followed by a consultation with the Physician. There’s no one waiting at the Lab, but the outpatient facility is having an issue with one of the MRI machines, so are down on resources. They are running behind. Without visibility of patient flow, Patient A will just be kept waiting for the MRI. There is no insight into the fact that the patient could walk down to the Lab and be back in time for the MRI. The waiting time for the MRI could impact the physician’s schedule too.

How can patient flow be optimized?

patient flow - hospitals US

Two key areas underlying the optimization of patient flow are:

  • Resources (ensuring outpatient resources in each department are sufficient)
  • Strategy (looking at the bigger picture)

If we consider the scenario of Patient A, with a greater visibility of patient flow there is a much greater chance of clawing back efficiency when things don’t go to plan. In this scenario, Patient A could be directed to the Lab, but still hold his/her place in the queue for the MRI. Flow can be optimized according to what is really happening on the ground.

Optimizing patient flow all comes down to visibility. If you can see both the bigger picture and have clear insights as to what is happening at each touchpoint, then there are always more options to make efficiencies elsewhere in the flow, or at least to keep patients fully informed of any delay.

Traditional patient flow diagrams can help to identify potential issues and efforts can even be taken in advance to address them, but all too often the overall picture isn’t fully considered. In most cases, flow improvement requires intervention in more than one area. A case study by BMC Health Services Research exploring the paradoxes of patient flow, found the following:

  • Initiatives improved parts of the system but failed to fix underlying system constraints
  • Local innovations clashed with regional policies and integration
  • Rules that improved service delivery in some areas, created problems in others

Without full visibility, there is often an antagonism between the system’s parts and its whole, making it more difficult to intervene with precision.

Quoted in an article on breaking down silos for better patient flow, Andrea Werner, MSW, Director of Heart and Vascular Center at Bellin Health in Green Bay, Wisconsin, says: “If you don’t focus on the big picture, you can optimize one area and suboptimize another.”

Patient flow solutions

Integrated patient flow software enables outpatient facilities to better manage patient flow across the entire facility and understand pinch points long before they become a big problem.

PatientTrak’s intuitive patient flow solution can be used in any healthcare setting to visualise flow at the macro and micro level and identify bottlenecks. Patient tracking enables providers to import appointments from a scheduling system, track user-defined activities, manage room usage, set alerts and generate custom reports. A registration, patient tracking and productivity module enables providers to manage patient registrations effectively, as well as monitor waiting times and eliminate phone calls between departments. 

Covid-19 has created additional challenges for providers.

PatientTrak offers Text Messaging, Online Reservation and Text to Sign-In solutions which can be used to create a virtual waiting room and direct patients to sign-in from outside the facility, as well as inform them when they are ready to be seen.

Managing patient flow is critical to patient satisfaction. PatientTrak’s patient flow solutions are proven to significantly improve the flow of patients through large complex outpatient facilities and other healthcare settings and increase patient satisfaction.

Contact us now to get your patient flow goals on track.