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Mobile apps, tech tools present quick fixes to long healthcare wait times

Tools like QLess allow patients to wait wherever they feel is convenient, and to come to the hospital when their number is called.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

While long wait times are historically associated with healthcare, providers are taking a financial risk in not addressing the problem. Patients who get fed up and leave before utilizing a facility's services represent lost revenue -- and some are making their voices heard, posting their dissatisfaction on the internet for a world full of consumers to see. This can make growing and retaining a customer base challenging. But technology can help.

On one hand, long-term strategies such as pre-verification and a revamped check-in process can help cut wait times; implementing digital tools can have a more immediate impact, and at the very least sends the signal to patients that their hospital cares about the inconvenience of a lengthy stint in the waiting room.

That's the view of Sean Lane, founder and CEO of CrossChx, an outfit that specializes in creating a health ID for patients that makes it easier for disparate hospitals and hospital departments to share patient information, which can chip into a long wait.

[Also: Doctor: Patient portals, mobile apps can improve wellness, boost bottom line]

"You have to show them that you care," said Lane. "You care about making that time smaller, and giving them some of their time back. The key is giving them some information. Imagine going to a restaurant, and you sign in, and you have no idea how much time you'll have to spend just standing there. That's a frustration. Even if wait times are longer than they should be, it's still important for them to know. It shows the patient that they care."

One thing CrossChx tech can do is communicate to the patient how long the wait is expected to last. That prevents many consumers from just throwing their hands in the air and leaving the facility altogether.

But Alex Backer, founder and CEO of QLess, would go one step farther by eliminating the waiting room entirely.

QLess is mobile app that alerts users about their expected wait time -- not just for hospitals, but for restaurants, theater tickets, anything that involves waiting. By sending scheduling information to people's phones, Backer expects that the old-fashioned method of manual pen and paper patient registration could one day become a thing of the past.

"Waiting rooms are one of the most wasteful uses of real estate in healthcare," said Backer. "They're almost completely unnecessary. That real estate could be repurposed more efficiently to be used for healthcare."

[Also: Increasingly, mobile payments simplify and speed-up billing process]

It would also reduce illness, he posited, because spending an inordinate amount of time in a hospital waiting room increases the likelihood of contracting an illness, with patients all touching the same objects and breathing the same air.

A mobile app, he said, allows consumers to wait wherever they feel is convenient, and to come to the hospital when their number is called. He expects that if this becomes the norm, then many hospitals will receive better online reviews. In an industry increasingly dominated by consumerism, that's a prime consideration, as patients are increasingly likely to shop around for the best experience.

"In the era of Yelp and Google and so on, this has ramifications well beyond that particular patient," said Backer. "One bad review can have an effect for years to come."

According to Lane, hospital systems have clinged to the pen-and-paper model for too long.

"It really frustrated people, because they use their mobile app to connect with the rest of the world … and everything is super easy because of this technology," said Lane. "And when they go into a hospital, they have a paper form that they've been using for years. It doesn't match up."

The amount of savings a hospital can experience by making the switch depends on a number of factors, including staffing. Lane said that if the front-end processes are more streamlined, and a facility has greater control over their lobby, only one person may need to staff the waiting room instead of two or more, freeing up the hospital's resources.

Online reviews are of course another variable. But so is reimbursement.

"Hospitals are being reimbursed based on customer satisfaction scores, which is important," said Lane. "And customers are going to come back in more often if they feel satisfied."

Of course, not all wait time solutions have to be technological in nature. The Washington D.C.-based Institute of Medicine recently found that revamping the front-line scheduling process can make a difference. Also, scheduling surgeries and other non-life-threatening procedures should take supply and demand into account, said IOM. Patients should be scheduled for these procedures on days where the hospital's less likely to have a spike in patient volume due to a busy evening in the emergency department.

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The report also advised hospitals to consider alternative forms of care delivery, such as telemedicine, and to make a reduction in wait times part of the organization's culture, something that trickles down from the executive leadership.

But in the short term, something as simple as an app notification can help retain those patients who are wary of just sticking around.

"If you have technology to reach out to these patients even after they've left, that's going to get a fraction of them to come back," said Backer. "It extends their patience."

Twitter: @JELagasse

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