Treating The Symptoms And Consequences Of Poor Office Scheduling

Lynn Homisak PRT

Delayed schedule. Irritated patients. Late workdays. Costly overtime. Disgruntled staff. Stress.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that something is wrong. All these signs are the classic symptoms of poor scheduling but that is only one diagnosis. Sure, patients expect backups … occasionally. However, when waiting becomes a repeat performance with no effort to fix it, all that good customer service your practice offers to romance your patients goes out the door along with the patient.

Is there a reason for this? Of course, there is a reason. Things don’t just happen in a vacuum. They are the byproducts of our actions. Doctors say they want more efficiency in the office. However, without the willingness to embrace change when one suggests fundamental management remedies, it continues to be the same-ole, same-ole. (Re-enter delayed schedule. Irritated patients. Late workdays. Costly overtime. Disgruntled staff. Stress.)

I believe Einstein said it best. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So why is it that despite the fact that everyone (staff, patients, doctor) benefits from an on-time schedule, we glaze over worthwhile solutions with excuses and the bad habits continue to (ineffectively) run these practices?

It is impossible to summarize all the reasons why medical offices keep patients waiting in a one-page blog (there are many) but since treating (unscheduled) multiple conditions is one of the biggest culprits, it gets top billing. Now before you get defensive and say “I do it because I care about my patients,” understand that this is not about caring for your patient. Of course you care. No one is disputing that. There is an effective way to handle this scenario and a not so effective way and unfortunately, more often than not, the not so effective way dictates protocol.

What I mean by that is making exceptions for one person usually has a trickle down effect. While it is nice to make that “caring” exception for a patient, it is unfair to the others who are on time, also needing care and left sitting in the reception room (a.k.a. “the waiting room.”).

I am confused by this “extra care” because I can tell you that (unless time allows), my dentist sticks to the one tooth I was scheduled for. Not two teeth and not, “Oh, by the way, can I get a cleaning while I’m here?”

Do I think he’s a bad dentist because he didn’t alter his schedule for me? Would I even consider going to another dentist for that reason? No, because he met the expectations for this appointment. The dentist saw me promptly, gave the attention and care I was scheduled for, the appointment before me did not spill over into mine and I left on time. If I had an additional problem that needed to be addressed, it really should have been my responsibility to call in advance, explain it to the receptionist and have my appointment expanded or rescheduled if need be to allow time to treat multiple conditions. At the very least, I should expect to make the new, painful condition my priority at this visit and schedule another appointment to replace my original appointment.

Of course emergencies do occur and the doctor must address them immediately, but not every (unscheduled) event treated as an emergency really is an emergency. Naturally, if time allows, the doctor can give special attention to non-emergent conditions as well. However, it is important in this instance to educate patients that this may not always be the case or they will come to expect it every time.

Here is the misconception. Blowing holes in your schedule for one or more patients doesn’t make you a hero, a better doctor, more likely to increase revenue or retain a patient. So, in order to keep flow intact (and truly keep everyone happy), it is sensible to hear and examine the patient’s new complaint and treat it if it is emergent or if time really does permit.

Otherwise, give them a patient-based response; “It’s nothing serious, Mrs. Jones but I am glad you brought this to my attention. Here’s what we will do today to make you comfortable. I want you to take note of how that feels over the next couple days/week. Before you leave today, see Sally at the front desk and have her schedule you for a visit so we can give you the proper amount of time to follow up and more comprehensively examine and treat it.”

There is no denying that good customer service and patient care is what we all strive for, but not if it means stepping on one patient’s toes to accommodate another patient. Patients want to know that everyone is treated fairly and gets the same respect. Again, there are many reasons why a schedule can take a nosedive and as I said at the onset, this is only one; a problematic one that has proven to cause unnecessary disruption. If you commit to making an effort to fix one problem at a time, I promise you, things will improve.

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