Guest Column | August 18, 2017

The Ripple Effect Of Long Wait Times – And What To Do About It

Physicians Unhappy WIth EHR Systems

By Tom Cox, CEO, MyHealthDirect

Nobody likes waiting. In the age of consumerism and instant gratification, when an Amazon package can be delivered to you within an hour or a stranger will pick you up and give you a ride in a matter of minutes through an app on your phone, waiting is the ultimate inconvenience.

Yet, for healthcare, waiting is the standard. Every office has a waiting room, and every patient waits even after being called back. But those are just mild examples. What about the new mental health patient that must wait 26 days to see a therapist? Or the person trying to book an appointment with a physician in Boston that has to wait 52 days on average?

Clearly, long wait times are a blight on patient satisfaction, but a more troubling consequence is that something “bad” will happen before the appointment. This “bad” thing can result in an unnecessary emergency department visit or even death.

The reality is that long wait times are more than just an inconvenience to patients. They create far-reaching consequences that also affect physicians, medical offices and staff, and entire healthcare systems.

Far too many providers are offering appointments many weeks or even months in the future due to insufficient provider capacity, scheduling practices, and other issues. Many Americans are accustomed to these scheduling headaches, and the healthcare industry seems to be turning a blind eye to the larger impact.

This summer, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) utilized some of our company’s data to highlight one of the biggest problems facing practices that regularly offer long wait times – the likelihood of patient no-shows. MyHealthDirect recently collected findings across a range of patient types, using a sampling of patient appointments booked through our service, and found definitively that patient no-shows increase as wait times get longer. This phenomenon occurs for many reasons, most commonly because the patient has either forgotten his or her appointment, or has switched to a provider offering a shorter wait time.

As emphasized by the NEJM, when patients don’t show up for appointments, the financial repercussions (especially for smaller clinics and practices) can be significant. Then, to compensate for the high potential of no-shows, some practices choose to double book patient appointments. This leads to a whole different set of issues, from patient backlogs to a declining referral rate.

On top of the financial and logistical impact to physicians, long wait times can also undermine the operational efficacy of an entire healthcare system. When patients cannot see their practitioners in a timely manner, they are far more likely to reach a point of desperation and choose an emergency room instead (per data from the NEJM). And when there are numerous patients inappropriately using emergency services, hospitals have less bandwidth to care for genuine emergencies. The ensuing snowball effect is worth serious consideration.

While physicians, hospitals and healthcare systems suffer from the ripple effect of long wait times, no one suffers more than the patients themselves. A patient who needs to see his or her primary care doctor or specialist is in need of care, and the prospect of waiting weeks or months for that care is emotionally, logistically and financially burdensome.

So, what can be done to improve the experiences of patients, practitioners, offices and the efficacy of the system as a whole?

I recommend implementing a digital care coordination solution that enables real-time appointment scheduling across your provider network. By digitally connecting your network of providers you make care coordination easier for everyone and you unlock the ability to analyze referral patterns. You can identify the providers with above average wait times and work with schedulers to refer patients to other providers to optimize physician capacity. Creating such a network is an investment of time, resources and energy, but it’s well worth it. A digital network ensures that patient appointments are more quickly, easily and efficiently booked and your physicians’ capacity is optimized.

This, in turn, means that patients will have shorter wait times, and as a result – everyone benefits.