Numerous studies in recent years have found that patient satisfaction has a lot to do with the amount of time spent sitting in the waiting room or, conversely, the amount of time patients get to spend talking with the doctor.
In fact, one 2006 study found that patient satisfaction declines with every 5 minutes an appointment is delayed and that after only 10 minutes, patient loyalty is at risk. For insight on time and the patient-physician relationship, see the Journal of General Internal Medicine’s 1999 article.
Your staff is also affected by chronic slowdowns, as they struggle with the stress of patient complaints, harried doctors, and their own desire to have an office environment that runs smoothly. And several studies over the past decade have found that physician satisfaction also comes from having enough time to do what feels like a good job.
But between the constant interruptions and the sometimes too-talkative patients, is there any way a physician can stay on schedule? You bet. The key is to plan your time efficiently, while taking an honest look at the factors that slow you down.
Here’s how to evaluate your time-management challenges:
1. Create a master schedule. Whether you do it in a hard-copy appointment book, with scheduling software, or via an online system, having one master schedule for all the physicians and staff in the office can help you avoid double-booking patients or having uneven coverage. Entering all the other professional commitments that come up, whether it’s heading over to the neonatal department, attending conferences, or teaching a class, ensures that you’re not asking yourself (or your staff) to be in two places at once.
2. Call a meeting. Your staff knows which days are the busiest, which days attract the most urgent care appointments, and which days (and hours) tend to be quiet. Ask them to help you map out a schedule that matches the ebbs and flows of your practice. Do you need more empty “urgent care” appointment slots on Mondays for people who fell ill during the weekend? Are Wednesdays good days for pediatric checkups? Would an hour-long drop-in period every morning help handle urgent visits? Your staff knows best.
Then ask your staff what they think is clogging up the scheduling works. Is it scheduling too many patients each hour? Is it not having enough staff to support a rigorous schedule? Is it your gift of gab? Listen to your staff’s perceptions and ask them to help you find solutions.
3. Learn to (tactfully) avoid interruptions. You’re already 25 minutes behind your schedule when an elderly man who has dropped in to get his blood pressure checked sees you writing out a lab slip at the front desk. “Hey doctor,” the man says. “Can I ask you a quick question?” While it may be tempting to entertain the question, a series of interruptions like that can send your schedule into chaos. Tell him you’d love to talk to him, but he needs to set up an appointment.
The other trick to avoiding interruptions is to check your e-mail only two or three times a day (instead of, say, between every appointment) and set a specific time (or times) during the day to return phone calls.
4. Schedule “catch-up” time. Do you keep scheduling six patients an hour throughout the day, hoping that you’ll be able to keep up, just this once? And do you keep falling behind? Your expectation may just be unreasonable; after all, not all patients take 10 minutes, and jamming urgent visits into already full schedules can bog down the whole works. Try scheduling in a certain portion of each hour to “catch up” on your schedule, or try scheduling blocks of time, several times a day, for the same purpose.
5. Start on time. Seems obvious, right? But arriving at the office 10 minutes late immediately starts you off on the wrong foot; and if it takes another 10 minutes for you to drop off your briefcase, grab a cup of coffee, review your appointments, and answer a receptionist’s questions, you’re already 20 minutes behind.
Chronic lateness, by the way, might be worth examining with professional help. Tardiness can be a passive-aggressive way of launching a protest against your schedule, your patients, your clinic, the overlords of managed care, or your career. Unfortunately, being late is not a very effective way of resolving, or expressing, your feelings.
6. Plan. Studies show that for every one minute people spend planning, they save four minutes in execution. Create reasonable to-do lists for each day, making categories of what’s “urgent,” “important,” and “would be nice.” And separate out what you need to accomplish as a doctor, a spouse, and, perhaps, a parent. Otherwise it’s hard to keep track of what you need to do when and why.