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Managing Patient Flow: Keep the Lines of Communication Open


Reducing patient cycle time and improving patient satisfaction can both be accomplished if you improve your practice's communication channels.

Reducing patient cycle time (the total time spent in the office) and improving patient satisfaction can both be accomplished if you improve your practice's communication channels: communication with and about patients. It all starts with that first phone call, and doesn't end until you wish your patient a good day with a big smile! Here are some key tactics to employ to let your patients know they are important to your practice:

1. Be available when patients need you most: Avoid the lunch-hour blues

Patients must have access to your scheduling staff in as quick and efficient manner as possible. This is absolutely critical. Make "scheduling an appointment" one of the first options on your automated call system; always have at least one staff member available over your lunch hour; and make sure that you have an adequate number of phone lines to ensure that patients don't receive a busy signal or have their call roll-over to voicemail.

Too often, staff can be so busy with patients in the office, taking lunch breaks, or doing other tasks (that may or may not be necessary during peak appointment hours), that patients get a bad impression of the practice. Remember, new patients are an important asset to your practice and should be treated that way. Also, treating established patients well can reduce turnover (patients leaving for another provider), and ensure that not only will they return to your practice, but also recommend it to their family and friends.

2. Always greet your patients by name: A rose only by its name…

Once in the office, patients should always be greeted with a smile and addressed by the appropriate name; that first interaction sets the tone for the rest of the visit. Patients do have names and like to be greeted personally. In some cases first names work well, while in others a patient expects to be addressed by her surname with the appropriate prefix; it is up to you and your staff to know your patients well enough to know the difference. Also when first greeting a patient, especially one that is new to your practice, introduce yourself by name - this makes the visit personal, as well as reassuring. Your receptionist has a multitude of duties, but the single most important one is to ensure that your patients feel welcome and appreciated.

When your staff call the patient back to the clinic area, they should also greet the patient by name, giving their own name as well. Patients should be told what is going to happen, and why. "The doctors ask that we take your blood pressure, temperature, etc., to insure that they can be better prepared to meet your needs today." Too often, daily tasks become so routine for staff members that they forget that it is really about the patients' experience - remind your staff that they should make patients feel as comfortable as possible.

3. Communicate: Waiting is much easier when you know what's happening

Keep your patients in the reception area (we don't want to call it a waiting room - "waiting" has a negative connotation) informed as to what is occurring in the clinic. This can be done individually or by addressing the group, depending upon circumstances. The informed patient will tolerate delays much more graciously than the uninformed patient who is left to count the minutes and wonder why the doctor is so late. If necessary, update your patients in the exam rooms as well. It will make their wait much more tolerable.

4. Create scripts for common patient scenarios: Don't leave collections to chance

Front-desk scripts can be created for greeting patients, collecting copays, and a myriad of common scenarios. Being consistent can go a long way in meeting the high standards that you expect for your practice. It also fosters efficiency and good work flow. A good script can be short and sweet: "Welcome to Dr. Jones office, Ms. Smith, it is nice to see you again" or "Your copay is $20, will that be cash, check, or credit card?"

5. Always follow up with test results: Any news is good news

Once the patient visit is complete and diagnostic results are received, let your patients know the results; either through the patient portal or with a phone call. Not calling with "normal" results leaves too many questions in the minds of most patients, and can imply that your practice is too busy to follow up with patients.

The key to good communication is often simple: Let patients know what is going on with their care, greet them personally, and treat them with respect. After all, why do you practice medicine, if not to take care of patients?

Owen Dahl, FACHE, CHBC, is a nationally recognized medical practice management consultant and author of "Think Business! Medical Practice Quality, Efficiency, Profits," "The Medical Practice Disaster Planning Workbook," and coauthor of "Lean Six Sigma for the Medical Practice: Improving Profitability by Improving Processes." He can be reached at or 281 367 3364.


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