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To improve patient flow, start with the waiting room

Digital queue management technology reduces burden on staff while keeping patients in the loop

Patient flow management has a tendency to focus on what happens after someone has been admitted to the hospital. How can emergency departments decrease the time from admittance to diagnosis to treatment? How can hospitals increase quality of communication between emergency room teams? How should staff keep track of the patient as he/she progresses through the care process? These are the kinds of logistical questions that hospital managers around the world are asking themselves as they seek to improve patient satisfaction, staff efficiency, and of course, quality of care. Addressing each of these is essential to improving hospital performance, but there’s another aspect of patient flow that tends to gets overlooked: the waiting room. And it’s more important than you might think.

Patient flow management has become a top priority for hospitals, particularly for urgent care centers and emergency departments, but also for optometry, pharmacy, labs and physicians – and for good reason. After all, poor patient experiences erode overall patient satisfaction with healthcare institutions. Just look at one-star ratings of hospitals on Yelp, and you’ll see that one of the most common complaints is that patients were kept waiting for hours before they received care. This is understandable, as the waiting room is a patient’s first impression of their healthcare experience. Patient flow management is now a major industry, and is expected to witness healthy growth through 2021 and beyond. Like businesses in other sectors, startups and established healthcare technology companies are putting innovations in data science, Internet of Things (IoT) technology, and artificial intelligence research to work at hospitals around the world.

So there’s a significant possibility that the next time you require a visit to the ER or urgent care center, your hospital bed may be outfitted with RFID sensors, digital displays, and other modern technologies that help medical staff manage patient flow. The waiting room, however, may be straight out of the 1950s.

Despite a growing awareness of the importance of patient flow management – not to mention the obvious negative impacts of crowding a bunch of sick people into the same room – the traditional wait, check-in, wait-for-your-number-to-be-called paradigm has yet to be replaced by a modern solution in the vast majority of medical facilities. It doesn’t have to be like that!

Waiting, Waiting, Everywhere Waiting

Digital queue management tools allow people to check-in to urgent care, the emergency room, or primary care offices through their phones. This allows patients to spend wherever they want their time waiting to receive care, not only sparing them from having to sit in a waiting room with people who are sick, but also effectively giving them back the time they would have wasted physically – oftentimes, uncomfortably – waiting for their turn. For offices looking at ways to improve patient satisfaction numbers, this is an appealing option, given that longer wait times correlate negatively with almost every aspect of the patient experience. This same technology can also be applied towards other aspects of the pre-admittance patient experience. In the case of urgent care centers and emergency rooms, for example, healthcare providers can use data from the line management tool to enable incoming patients to view the time from check-in to admittance, and even steer them towards other facilities with a shorter wait time if the wait is unacceptably long.

Queue management can have an impact on hospital staff satisfaction and engagement as well. With a virtual waitlist set up, staff can spend less of their time managing waiting patients and more time focusing on helping admitted patients, which improves overall productivity. The psychological factor of eliminating visibly long lines and overflowing waiting rooms can boost staff morale and even reduce overall stress. Furthermore, hospitals that choose to use virtual queuing technology to influence patient flow before people even reach the facility can help deal with the chronic problem of overcrowding, a significant source of negative patient experiences.

In emergency rooms, good patient flow has direct effects on health, but even in primary care or specialist practices, the use of patient flow management tools can lead to measurable improvements in patient satisfaction. And given the findings of a recent Deloitte study suggesting that improving patient experience can actually address aspects of care that increase quality as well, there are even more reasons to make patient experience a top priority. Improving the waiting room system is one relatively straightforward, yet often underutilized, way improving of patient flow to improve the patient experience. There’s good reason, then, for hospitals looking to modernize their operations to simply start at the beginning: the waiting room.

Dr. Alex Bäcker
Alex is co-founder and CEO of QLess, crowned with the Gold Stevie for the Best Computer Services Company at the last five American Business Awards, and serves on the California Institute of Technology Information Sciences and Technology Board of Advisors. He holds a degree in Biology and Economics from MIT and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Computation and Neural Systems and Biology from Caltech. Prior to starting QLess, Alex held positions at McKinsey & Co., the Center for Computation, Computers, Information and Mathematics of Sandia National Labs, and Caltech.

Alex's research on neural coding and artificial intelligence has been published in the world’s leading publications such as Nature and Neural Computation. He has received a number of distinctions including the 2010 inaugural 40 Under 40 from M&A Advisor Recognition Awards and the 2013 International Business Awards’ Gold Stevie for IT Executive of the Year and the Silver Stevie for Innovator of the Year.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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