What Is Patient Flow? How To Improve Yours at Your Practice

June 8, 2022 by Antonio Arias, MBA, CHBME

Topics: Revenue Cycle Management, Practice Management

Here’s a real eye-opener: 2 out of 3 healthcare consumers report to have had a bad patient experience. That’s the latest data from consulting firm Accenture, and a troubling sign for the medical industry. According to the report, which surveyed 1,800 adult patients, 22% percent stated that an inefficient visit led to a poor healthcare experience. 

To improve the healthcare experience and to be more customer-centric, many healthcare organizations are looking at how to improve patient flow.

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What Is Patient Flow?

Patient flow, in a nutshell, is “the patient’s journey.” It is the movement of patients during their visit or stay at a healthcare facility. The study of patient flow looks at everything that a patient experiences from the time they walk into a healthcare facility to the time they leave or are discharged. 

Patient flow, also known as patient throughput, includes both administrative and medical functions, including the admissions process, completion of paperwork, checking vitals, seeing a doctor or specialist, and so on. Healthcare facilities often look to improve patient flow in order to provide more timely and effective treatment to patients while also maintaining safety and quality. This ultimately provides a better patient/provider experience.

Patient flow relates to the patient's journey at your practice

Why Is Patient Flow Important to Your Medical Practice?

Today, many organizations are trying to take a more patient-centric approach to healthcare. This means “Putting the patient first to respectfully and compassionately achieve the best experience and outcome for that person and their family.” One of the first things they’ll often look at is patient flow, as a good flow can have a positive ripple effect through the healthcare facility. Here are 6 reasons patient flow is important for your medical practice.

  • Reduced wait times. Wait times for outpatient visits can be long, and an Advisory Board Company research study found that for inpatient stays, patients go through an average of 24 hand-offs during their stay, impacting patient satisfaction, retention, and incidents of malpractice.
  • Decreased costs to the healthcare facility. By improving patient flow, medical facilities can save money because they no longer face the need to expand the facility, add staff, or deal with costly delays in care to accommodate more patients.
  • Improved patient care and satisfaction.  An optimized patient flow often improves the quality of care patients receive while reducing wait times, improving their overall experience.
  • Improved staff satisfaction. A recent report found that  44% of US clinicians have symptoms of “healthcare burnout,” and one of the biggest contributing factors is workflow challenges which keep staff from tending to patients and instead has them focused on “busywork.”
  • Increased productivity. When patient flow bottlenecks are removed, patients move quicker through the medical process and staff is able to tend to them quicker, accommodating more patients.
  • Fewer malpractice claims. Communication gaffes are a root cause of malpractice claims. Improving patient flow improves communication, and as a result, reduces the incidence of malpractice lawsuits.

To maintain quality services, health care facilities evaluate where the patient flow process is being held up and what improvements can be made to correct the deficiencies. So, let’s look at ways to improve your patient flow.

How to Improve Your Patient Flow & Deliver Great Care

Want to reap the rewards of a more efficient patient flow? Here are 7 tips to consider that can make your healthcare practice more customer-centric.

1. Create a Patient Portal

Patient portals have become a popular method of online data collection and communication. With proper security features in place, portals provide patients with convenient 24-hour access to their personal health information. Through the portal, patients can review educational materials, schedule non-emergency appointments, and update their medical history. Portals also prevent delays at check-in by allowing patients to update their health information and insurance if applicable. 

Most portals, or Electronic Health Record systems also offer a secure messaging feature that allows patients, physicians, and administrative staff to communicate online; this reduces phone calls, games of phone tag, and allows physicians and staff to quickly and conveniently respond to patient needs and questions.

2. Track and Streamline Cycle Times

Cycle time looks at how long it takes for any process or combination of processes in the patient flow to happen. For example, the amount of time it takes a patient to be admitted, to receive treatment, and to be discharged. To reduce cycle time, healthcare facilities may want to consider tracking tools such as real-time locating systems (RTLS). These systems are used to automatically identify and track the location of people in real time. 

With RTLS, healthcare practices can follow patients or staff from check-in to check-out, identifying bottlenecks and inefficiencies during the process. RTLS allows them to see just how long a patient spends in the waiting room, in a patient room, in a particular department, and so on. If RTLS data shows that patients typically spend too much time in one area, healthcare leaders can take steps to correct or mitigate the problem. 

Another bonus? RTLS can also be used to track medical assets such as equipment, available hospital beds, and pharmaceutical supplies. This way, staff knows what’s available and when to further expedite the patient journey. 

3. Survey Patients

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know where a bottleneck exists. However, patients usually have something to say about it! So, consider developing a simple survey that tracks how much time patients spend in the reception area, in the exam room, and with their doctor. An online patient satisfaction survey or SMS text survey is a great way to accomplish this. 

One facility that was quite large determined through surveys that the cause of so many late appointments was due to patients getting lost. To solve this, they implemented a navigational phone app. This wayfinding solution provided turn-by-turn instructions to help patients navigate their way through the facility, and late or missed appointments were greatly reduced.

Improving patient flow can benefit your medical practice

4. Create Policies for No-shows and Late Arrivals

No-shows and late arrivals can become quite a bottleneck for medical facilities. It’s important to create a policy (and stick to it) for no-shows or patients who arrive late. The policy should identify the maximum late arrival time and set late fees for repeated cancellations or no-shows. Just be sure to clearly communicate their policies to patients so as to avoid conflict down the road. Read more in our blog How to Write a No-Show Policy.

5. Improve Communication Across Departments

Every part of your practice is connected, so every department must be on the same page when it comes to the current state of patient workflow and improvement goals. Depending on the size of your staff, you could create a patient flow team with a representative from each department. The team might create a “patient flow diagram,” mapping the performance of each step in the patient flow and measuring performance. 

You patient flow team should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Where are bottlenecks in our patient flow?
  • Can any step in the patient flow be eliminated for efficiency? Can any steps be conducted simultaneously?
  • How often do staff members complete each step? What is the average time to completion?
  • Can we sequence the steps within our patient flow in a better way?
  • Can any steps be automated to give time back to staff members?
  • Where can we implement technology to make steps more efficient?

Once these questions have been answered and solutions have been identified, goals must be shared with all staff members.

6. Adopt Telemedicine

Telemedicine, or virtual healthcare visits, can greatly improve patient flow by eliminating the need for every patient to come into the office. Telehealth really took off during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce people’s exposure to the virus. However, adoption rates continue to grow as practices have realized that the telehealth option can streamline documentation, prevent no-shows or late arrivals, and cut the average office visit time in half. Patients also like it because it eliminates time spent traveling to the office or sitting in the waiting room. 

7. Improve Non-Clinical Services

Non-clinical staff members – those who fulfill roles in administration, billing, transportation, housekeeping, and so on – also have an impact on patient flow. You can help improve their efficiency in a number of ways:

  • Offering training. Ongoing training is a good investment as it increases employee confidence, keeps them engaged, and enhances motivation. When they feel more job satisfaction, patients report greater satisfaction too.
  • Embracing technology. Reduce tedious manual work through automation. For example, healthcare facilities might automate check-in/our procedures, or implement an RTLS so that administrative staff knows where clinicians and equipment is at all times.
  • Using medical billing services. A proper medical coding and billing process is important to keep revenue coming in and to continue delivering great care to your patients. However, rejected claims, inaccurate medical coding issues, and confusing medical billing legislation can bring the revenue cycle to a grinding halt, even disrupting your operations. A medical billing service can take this burden off your hands and free up valuable time for staff.

Optimize Your Operations with NCG Medical Billing Services

The professionals at NCG Medical can handle the medical billing and coding process for you, helping to improve the patient flow. We view the success of every medical practice as our own, so we work as an extension of your team to take care of your medical billing and coding. This means you and your staff can focus on what matters most: delivering great care to your patients. 

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