See More Patients Sooner Without Working Longer Hours

Kenneth J. Terry, MA


February 06, 2013


Does it take your patients a week to get an appointment? A month? If so, you have an access problem that could affect your quality of patient care and cost you business, as patients go to competing doctors who are no less busy than you are but who have figured out how to see them the same day.

If you schedule patients the conventional way, seeing all who want to be seen the same day may seem impossible -- unless you work late as a lifestyle. But it's doable if you change your approach to patient scheduling.

Here are the current scheduling systems and tactics in use and the pros and cons of each. Some are more flexible and efficient than others.

The Doctor Will Be Happy to See You...Next Month

In traditional scheduling, patients are booked sequentially until the number of available slots for each day runs out. This approach may involve numerous appointment types, based on the type of complaint or the nature of the activity.

Traditional scheduling has several downsides for doctors, staff, and patients. First, it's not uncommon for busy primary care physicians to be booked 3 or 4 weeks ahead, which reduces patient access to care. Although physicians are usually willing to work urgent cases into their schedule, that may mean that other patients have to wait or that doctors must work longer-than-normal hours.

Another problem is the proliferation of appointment types, which can needlessly complicate the booking process. Today's scheduling software allows practices to reserve certain kinds of slots for particular types of patients, such as those needing well-woman visits, physical exams, or follow-up care for chronic conditions. Some large groups have hundreds of appointment types, notes Jane Metzger, Principal Researcher in the Emerging Practices division of consulting firm CSC.

All of these appointment types and the effort of maintaining a large, ever-changing schedule far ahead of office visits can put a big strain on practice schedulers. Amy Mullins, MD, a member of a 3-doctor family practice in Whitehouse, Texas, recalls that, several years ago, her group's scheduling system, "had so many choices that you had too many choices. There were also rules attached to everyone's schedule, and it became a lot of work to schedule a person into each slot. It became very hard to get an appointment."

To solve this problem, she notes, she and her colleagues reduced the number of appointment types to just a few, defined by the amount of time that each requires.