Open access scheduling starts to ease wait times

Open access scheduling starts to ease wait times

The Flint Journal reports that some physicians are turning to “open access” scheduling to improve service levels. Rather than filling up all or almost all of their schedules weeks in advance, physicians leave a meaningful share of slots (1/3 is the number cited in the article) open for same-day appointments.

“It improves the flow of the office because we’re doing today’s work today,” said Patty George, business manager at [a] three-physician practice. “The goal is not to put people off.”

Physician offices have tended to fill their schedules in advance, because it appears to give them more control –after all, maybe no one will show up if slots are left open till the last minute. But most offices actually have a fairly predictable flow of patients –for example, more patients call for same-day appointments on Mondays than Wednesdays– and doctors can adjust their schedules accordingly.

Patients who make appointments long in advance are more likely to be no-shows; in some cases the problem will have resolved itself, in others the patients may have simply forgotten or gone somewhere more convenient.

Speaking of convenience, one reason physicians are starting to embrace open access is that they are justifiably concerned that patients will begin to turn to in-store MinuteClinics and the like that are beginning to pop up at major retailers. Retailers know a lot about convenience and customer service and will set a standard for service levels that will influence physician practice.

For the moment, open access is just a way to catch up with best practices that have been around for a long while. My doctor has had a version of it for years. But more can be done, including allowing the patient to book his/her own appointment electronically –with the physician setting permission levels for different patients– electronic appointment reminders, and same-day notices indicating that the physician is running later (or early?) As consumers pay more for their own care, might physicians turn to other airline-type yield management practices such as lower fees for off-peak appointments?

You’ll know things have gone too far when your doctor starts to require a Saturday night stayover.

April 26, 2006

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