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If your practice has a problem with patient wait times, don't wait to address it, MGMA says

For those in a recent MGMA poll who say they are already on it, implementing technology plays a major role in their success.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

As consumerism continues to reshape the healthcare landscape, healthcare practices should be looking inward to discover how they can better meet patient demands. Patient wait times are a frequent bone of contention between patients and their providers' practices, and a new Medical Group Management Association stat poll shows if you aren't taking steps to reduce patient wait times, you're in the minority. And that's not a good place to be.

In a MGMA stat poll, medical practice leaders were asked if they'd revised processes to cut patient wait times in the past year. Overall, 49 percent of respondents said they had and 22 percent said they were working on it.

[Also: Patient wait times show notable impact on satisfaction scores, Vitals study shows]

Of those who answered "yes," most said technology played a major role in the improvements they made in patient wait times. Some said they implemented the use of tablets for check-in, pre-registration and pre-eligibility checks before patients arrive. Another popular solution was the addition of evening and weekend hours in primary care or extending appointment time slots  by five minutes to allow more time per patient.

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MGMA Principal Consultant Kenneth Hertz highlighted five steps to address the issue of patient wait times. First develop a baseline by analyzing operations in your practice, observing the experiences of patients, and looking at current scheduling models and how appointments are scheduled. Conduct a patient satisfaction survey and consider focus group sessions.

[Also: Hospital wait times longer for Medicaid patients than privately insured, Health Affairs study finds]

Improve your communication with patients as to the length of their appointment and how long the wait is when they actually arrive. 

"If your wait times tend to be longer, provide the patient with a card stating, 'If you've been in our reception area more than 25 minutes and haven't been called, please bring this up to the receptionist.' This gives you an opportunity to reset expectations, as well as apologize for the delay, and most importantly, get feedback from the patient," Hertz said.

You should also look at extending your office hours by scheduling early morning or late evening appointments so patients have more options.

Finally, it's all about the technology. Your practice could think about kiosks or tablet solutions to improve patient flow and to cut patient wait time by better facilitating appointment preregistration. Prepayment of a copay one week before the appointment also improves patient flow, not to mention cash collections.

Some of the 27 percent who said they had not worked toward cutting patient wait times explained that wait times had already been addressed and were not a problem. 

For those who simply haven't addressed the issue yet, now is the time. The rise in popularity of urgent care centers, walk-in clinics and even community hospitals is due at least in part to better service and less waiting around to be seen, especially among millennials. If traditional practices hope to keep up, they must figure out a way to keep wait times down. 

"The patient experience is an important part of your patients' visit, and while it's great to hear that your patients love their doctors, you don't want to hear that they dislike your staff or the way the office is being run," Hertz said.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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