Advanced Scheduling: Tackling Tough Challenges to Improve Patient Care

By Mark Byers, DSS CEO

Increasingly, Veterans Health Administration (VHA) hospitals are grappling with a growing demand for services, coupled with financial pressures that are forcing them to serve more patients with the same—or fewer—resources. Rising to the challenge are today’s state-of-the-art scheduling systems, which go beyond simply matching a patient to an open appointment slot; they are on the front lines of patient access.

Given the expanding volume of veteran patient populations and the fact that most appointment scheduling involves outpatient care rather than inpatient, VHA hospitals need scheduling systems that can seamlessly connect patients with community physicians and healthcare provider partners to create a 360-degree view of care. For improved veteran access, these systems should include a patient portal.

Just as importantly, VHA appointment scheduling must link to all VHA systems and be fully integrated with VistA. That way, appointment data automatically feeds the appropriate downstream clinical packages, and the scheduling system is synchronized with the most current patient information.

This type of fully integrated system can help reduce redundancies, lessen excessive data entry and diminish data errors. For instance, patient requests and physician orders can flow into a queue and be used to populate other systems (e.g., a radiology work-list or information needed by the billing staff). Taking this connectivity further, revenue cycle functions like insurance verification and patient-portion estimates can be done at the scheduling stage, where they have the greatest potential to help patients while also benefitting the revenue cycle.

Here are several steps VHA hospitals can take to improve scheduling for enhanced patient care:

  1. 1. Streamline phone scheduling. Schedulers can spend less time on each call and take more calls per day if a scheduling system “knows” the parameters for various appointment types (e.g., the appointment length necessary for a new patient encounter vs. a follow-up visit). Systems also can automatically search across VHA facilities for the first available appointment that meets the identified parameters.
  2. 2. Coordinate location/equipment/personnel. Some procedures require not only the availability of a particular provider at a certain location, but also the availability of specific medical equipment. Advanced scheduling systems can coordinate these variables by looking for an appointment time when the correct location, equipment and physician all are available. Smart systems also can automatically reduce or lengthen appointment times based on the efficiency of the machines selected. With clinical appropriateness thus taken into consideration, delays and cancellations are reduced.
  3. 3. Shrink schedule gaps. Because appointments are consistently booked for the correct amount of time, “gaps” in the schedule are reduced. Clinicians can see additional patients per day and patients get greater appointment availability—all without needing additional resources.
  4. 4. Diminish wait times. Feeding patient appointment requests and physician orders of any type (fax, phone, electronic) into a single queue helps eliminate lost orders and allows for more consistent scheduling. It also streamlines the wait-list process—patients automatically can be alerted if an earlier appointment becomes available, improving patient access to service.
  5. 5. Compile robust analytics. Healthcare leaders can use metrics to track no-show rates, examine the causes of long wait times, and determine whether or not provider time is being used efficiently. Metrics can help leaders correctly set office hours, fine-tune schedules and adjust resource levels.
  6. 6. Automate post-discharge follow-ups and referrals. Although this is a relatively new way for VHA hospitals to utilize their scheduling systems, it has already proven successful for some healthcare organizations working to lower readmission rates.

VHA hospitals today must find a way to thrive within an environment focused on delivering patient-centric care with better outcomes and greater efficiency. Advanced, fully integrated scheduling solutions are a vitally important part of that effort.