How to Turn Complex Calendars into a Sleek Patient Scheduling Process

Whether your practice books 20-minute, 30-minute, or 90-minute appointments, there are common challenges and hurdles that come with booking, managing, and coordinating time between your business, its providers, and each and every one of your patients.

No matter how you look at it, the patient scheduling process can be a daunting one.

We’ve written before about the many drawbacks and pitfalls that come with scheduling. No-shows, late arrivals, mix-ups, and overbooking are just a few of the most prominent issues.

The room for error is also enormous.

But most importantly, each of these small mistakes can mean major consequences for your business — and your patients.

There’s no one-size-fits-all scheduling process that will take away all the stress and uncertainty that comes with running a practice. Instead, there’s a process you can use to re-engineer how you manage appointments to create a more streamlined, reliable, and predictable system that works better for everyone involved.

Deconstructing the scheduling process

Of the four stages in problem solving, generally the most difficult is the first step: identifying the problem you are trying to solve.

In the case of the patient-scheduling process, this is best accomplished by first deconstructing the entire patient experience.

It’s simple enough to identify the outcomes you want to achieve (e.g. shorter patient wait times), but in order to identify the problems you would need to solve first, you’ll have to begin by deconstructing and analyzing how your patients interact with your practice.

Using design thinking and lean strategies, you should begin by first mapping out each step in the patient process, from initial contact to any post-appointment follow-up n appointments.

This is a critical step in developing a streamlined approach to patient scheduling.

Having a grasp of the entire experience will allow you identify the bottlenecks in your current system and optimize the experience, both to provide a better patient experience and to improve efficiency and reduce complexity for your practice.

Check out this concept in action (Figure 3) here.

While this process can seem complex and daunting, the reality is that it’s rather straightforward.

There are many devices, systems, and processes you can use. But it essentially comes down to four basic steps:

  1. Identify key patient needs and goals.
  2. Walk through several patient interactions, noting each step of the process.
  3. Create a diagram showing each of the touchpoints and describing its nature.
  4. Critically analyze each touchpoint to identify problems, bottlenecks, and opportunities for improvement.

Using this approach, you’ll be able to both consider the big-picture view of the patient’s journey and zoom in on each individual interaction to understand its role within the larger experience.

Schedule optimization

For most practices, there is a range of different types of appointments that can require different amounts of time and attention.

Unfortunately, many practices also miss the opportunity to be strategic in how they prioritize and organize these different appointment types. This leads to challenges and inconsistencies, with complex appointments being scheduled for inopportune time slots or without proper consideration for the time needed in that particular case.

It’s important for your practice to establish clear guidelines regarding when and how to schedule certain types of appointments, as well as how to accurately assess a particular case and identify its type and scope.

This process goes hand in hand with the in-office and over-the-phone triage that is likely handled by front-of-the-house staff.

The most common approach for improving this process and optimizing appointment schedules is to develop an in-house chart used to evaluate specific cases and score them according to relative urgency and estimated appointment length.

From this process, you can develop a grid like this:

Staff who are responsible for setting and managing appointments can refer to these charts as a first-line for assessing a patient’s needs and providing the appropriate course of action.

Lastly, it may make sense to implement a strategy in which your practice will prioritize more complex or lengthier visits while referring out other types of appointments.

From a business standpoint, this may allow you to schedule fewer appointments while maintaining a predictable flow of patients and revenue.

Measuring success

The next phase of building a streamlined patient-scheduling process is to have a feedback mechanism for the entire system.

While all this pre-planning and design can help give shape and structure to the best practices, you need real-world data to continue improving over time.

Did appointment type A actually take 30 minutes as planned? Or did it take 45?

Your practice needs to have a process to review and analyze past appointments based on the previously defined metrics. Then, you need a mechanism to circle back and make adjustments to the system as necessary (e.g. update the triage chart to reflect longer or shorter appointment times for specific cases).

At the core of building a streamlined appointment system and reducing the complexity of your appointment process, this step is likely the most important.

It’s easy enough to devise a possible solution and create new internal policies. But even the best estimates are still just that — estimates — unless they are backed up and continuously improved with real-world data.

As tempting as it may be to make a system once and never touch it again, be sure to create a process for learning and optimization.

Implementing technology

The final piece to optimizing your appointment management process is technology.

Using the right tools can help the overall patient scheduling process in three core ways:

  1. Simplified metrics/tracking.
  2. Centralized patient data.
  3. Patient reminders and confirmation (positive reinforcement).

Each offers some small advantage in the quest for a better and more efficient scheduling process. But taken together, they represent a massive advantage to practices that want to build a smarter, more efficient system.

Apptoto, for example, can provide a central hub for recording and tracking individual appointment and patient data. In addition, the reminder and confirmation features can help boost overall appointment performance.

In the end, it’s important to remember that when we discuss things like appointment metrics or patient data, what we’re really talking about are individuals — people.

That’s one of the biggest reasons to use technology to improve your patient-scheduling process. By spending less time on managing and organizing time slots, your team can focus their energy on serving people and meeting their needs to the best of their ability.