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‘Intelligent Scheduling’ Promises to Improve Efficiency, Patient Satisfaction

It may be possible to improve clinical practice efficiency and patient satisfaction and prevent errors that impact administrative workloads through so-called “intelligent scheduling.” Scheduling tools that use data-driven algorithms can automate administrative tasks and improve patient interactions in ways that traditional appointment booking capabilities previously could not.

“Specialty organizations using an intelligent scheduling solution have seen an average increase of 5%-10% in physician utilization, with gastroenterology, orthopedic and musculoskeletal, urology, and multi-specialty practices each maintaining between 87%-98% physician utilization rates,” said Jeff Gartland, CEO of Relatient, an intelligent patient scheduling and engagement technology company. 

New algorithm-based scheduling tools use a rules-based solution that streamlines the complexity of managing provider rules and preferences. They also create a simplified scheduling experience for staff and patients. An intelligent scheduling platform is configured across a network of providers and practice locations to create a centralized, real-time view of physician appointment availability, whether they work at a single office or across multiple locations.

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Jyoti Joshi, PhD, a data analytics specialist, said traditional scheduling is associated with long waiting times and poor resource utilization. The main reason for this is uncertainty and variability in patient demand. “Intelligent scheduling will be the only way to improve performance as well as improve patient satisfaction,” Dr Joshi said. “This scheduling involves various intelligent algorithms like swarm algorithms, genetic algorithms, multi-agent systems, machine learning algorithms, and so on.”

Scheduling is the backbone of a health care organization, yet many practices use scheduling systems that rely heavily on manual, analog operations like binders, spreadsheets, or historical knowledge, Gartland said.

It is the staff who normally have the best knowledge for managing provider rules and preferences. “These scheduling practices are becoming increasingly more complex as patients demand more autonomy with their care and better digital experiences,” Gartland said. “Meanwhile, providers themselves want more streamlined operations that will ensure they’re working at the top of their license, while filling appointments according to their preferences.”

No-shows cost the health care industry billions annually. Unbalanced physician schedules can create long appointment wait times for patients and unfilled appointment slots. Managing schedules in a centralized manner may lead to improved staff productivity and close gaps in care. Intelligent scheduling configures rules and preferences that are specifically customized by each individual provider. “In specialty practices, we know that providers have very unique needs and preferences depending on the types of procedure, patient visit reason, and more,” Gartland said.

It is estimated that approximately 90% of provider organizations rely on internal staff knowledge when it comes to scheduling rules. Gartland said this poses a risk when staff turnover occurs and historical knowledge is lost. “By building these rules directly within the scheduling system, administrators can ensure they are booking the specific appointments or patient types exactly aligned to how providers want their schedules structured,” he said.

Specific rules can be directly applied in an intelligent scheduling system. This can pave the way to significant improvements in revenue. Clinicians can have their schedules aligned and structured in a manner that improves care while saving time. “Administrators can ensure they are booking the specific appointments, such as a vasectomy versus ureteroscopy, or patient types, such as new versus existing, Medicare versus private insurance, etc,” Gartland said.

Adopting online scheduling of appointments can be beneficial. Traditional scheduling tools and even many native electronic health records capabilities do not adequately account for complex and evolving provider needs and preferences, Gartland said. “True intelligent scheduling tools don’t stop after an appointment is scheduled. Day-to-day analytics can help drive optimal scheduling performance, such as identifying opportunities to improve provider utilization and also track KPIs [key performance indicators] for patient acquisition, appointment volume, and more,” Gartland said.

Automating basic tasks such as appointment reminders, managing a wait list, and smartly overbooking can drastically reduce the burden on staff while maintaining appointment volume. The majority of providers say that quality of scheduling is one of the most important factors for patient experience. “Likewise, 61% of patients have reported skipping doctors’ appointments due to challenges associated with scheduling, including having to schedule through a phone call instead of online,” Gartland said. “As more and more scrutiny is applied to the scheduling process, there are also a lot more consumer demands that need to be taken into consideration.”

In the current work environment with an acute shortage of workers, learning the digital and analog processes and managing provider rules and preferences can be daunting for new employees. An intelligent scheduling system can diminish staff training time by 50%, Gartland said. Over time, not only does this improve operations at the organization, but also may help staff find more fulfillment in their work, which is a leading factor in staff retention.

Matt Hollingsworth, CEO and cofounder of Carta Healthcare, said intelligent scheduling is an example of an AI application in health care that will be quickly and more safely adopted than other applications. “Initially, the system may not be able to perform a scheduling role similar to a human’s role,” Hollingsworth said. “Like a new employee, it will need to be observed and trained by a human.” Integrating this type of administrative intelligence in health care is vital, as it frees up clinicians and healthcare workers to spend their time instead providing face-to-face care to patients.

Carta Healthcare empowers clinicians to deliver optimal care by analyzing patient registries and other tools. “Intelligence must be checked by a human in all cases, but in applications that are not providing medical care versus scheduling won’t result in harm to the patient like unchecked medical advice,” Hollingsworth said.

Patient preferences have dramatically changed in the past 3 years. In growing numbers, patients are using portals. “The pandemic supercharged these digital processes and forced consumers to become a lot more autonomous with booking and managing their own services. They expect the same now from health care organizations,” Gartland said.

Patient portals have given patients more access to their providers and clinical information. Now, the next generation of portals will be adding an intelligent scheduling platform that can allow patients to self-schedule appointments through the provider’s website, through a link in a text message, or even through a website chatbot.

Having an agile tool makes it easier for patients to proactively take that first step in scheduling and the tool captures patients no matter where they enter throughout their care journey, Gartland said. “In order to remain competitive, specialty organizations like urology and nephrology practices should consider expanding access outside of the portal to accommodate the different preferences and reach new populations of patients,” he said.