Quality Time

June 3, 2010

How much time should you spend with your patients? This is an important question, but difficult to answer.

How much time should you spend with your patients? This is an important question, but difficult to answer. Realistically, the answer will vary for new vs. established patients, uncomplicated visits vs. those patients with comorbidities, general vs. specialty practices, and so on. However, thanks to healthcare reform and quality initiatives, the immediate future of your practice will increasingly depend on how and where you spend your time. It is vital then to address the quality of the time you spend with your patients.

Practices tend to run on autopilot, especially when time is scarce. One of the first things I recommend is to ask yourself:

  • On average, how much time do you spend with a patient?

  • How much time does the typical patient spend in your office?

  • How effective is the time you spend with your patients?

  • Could some tasks be handed off to the nurse or assistant?

  • How can you increase the quality time you spend with each patient?

Once you have the answers to these questions, think about how you can incorporate the following strategies into your practice:

Making time count. The key to efficiency is to eliminate redundancy and maximize time by thinking ahead. If your medical assistant is asking patients predetermined questions, such as “Do you have any allergies?” it does not save any time if you come behind her and ask the same questions. Likewise, you should have a list of current medications, and the prescription renewal dates before you sit down with the patient. You can increase quality time with your patients by delegating lesser tasks to staff members, and creating tools such as templates and questionnaires to maximize your efforts.

Prep work. If your schedule calls for a defined sequence, say 15-minute appointment slots, do you see every patient on time and in sequence? Work with your staff to maximize the time allotted per patient by holding a staff “huddle” 10 minutes before each day starts. A review of scheduled patients by name and chief complaint will help you manage the time needed to see each patient.

Flexible scheduling. As a patient, I expect to have the physician’s full attention when I ask or respond to a question. If I am scheduled for a 20-minute appointment, I expect to receive that time. If I only have a quick question or two, then I expect a shorter, more focused visit. It is important to learn to manage each patient according to his needs. If you find that you are spending more than 50 percent of the appointment counseling a patient or coordinating care, then by all means use time-based coding to get reimbursed for your efforts.

Communicate. One of the most successful tools for prevention of malpractice claims is effective communication with your patients. I can’t stress this enough. Patients want to be heard, and are usually willing to forgive an honest error if they feel you have given them the time and attention they deserve. Good communication can also reduce both patient and physician stress. Taking the time now to address relevant issues can prevent loss of time and money in the future.

So, how much time should you be spending with your patients? As much time as they need. Utilize tools and smart practices to gain efficiency and time; just don’t short change your 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 odahl@owendahlconsulting.com or 281 367 3364.