The Staffing Crisis is Making Patient Access Worse. Technology can Help.
This blog is brought to you by Azalea Health’s partner, Phreesia.
Kristin Roberts, Vice President of Market Development at Phreesia, was recently interviewed on Becker’s Healthcare Podcast about how healthcare organizations can improve patient access even during the current staffing crisis. This is an edited transcript of Roberts’ conversation with Becker’s Healthcare Publisher Scott Becker. Listen to the full podcast here.
Scott Becker: What are some of the patient access issues that healthcare organizations face today?
Kristin Roberts: So challenges center around how manual the referrals process is for both staff and patients. If you think about provider organizations, they have call-center reps and schedulers who are responsible for hundreds of calls that come in. And, at the same time, they’re supposed to conduct patient outreach.
I saw this firsthand through a family member’s experience when he needed a non-urgent surgery. He was told to wait for a phone call from a specialist, but no one ever called. Eventually, there was back-and-forth between him and the practice with missed calls and voicemails. So he ended up calling a different specialist because it took so long to get the care he needed. I think there are many other patients who end up doing just that, unfortunately.
Becker: How is the healthcare staffing crisis making some of these access issues more difficult?
Roberts: Organizations just don’t have the staff they need. As a result, [phone] hold times to get through are longer. Scheduling delays are longer. And there’s physician burnout, too. I recently spoke with an OB/GYN organization that reported a 25% increase in their number of deliveries, but they’re short-staffed. So, everyone is overworked and stressed out. [The practice’s] revenues are up, but its staff satisfaction is way down.
Becker: What are some ways to improve these issues?
Roberts: There are two big areas for improvement: Clean up the referrals process and add more automation to schedule management.
Becker: Could you discuss the opportunities for improvement in automated schedule management?
Roberts: There is a general disconnect in healthcare between supply and demand. We have patients who want to be seen quickly but then can’t get an appointment for weeks. And then there are providers with gaps in their schedules, whether from no-shows or unexpected cancellations. But if a scheduler wants to fill one of those open slots, that can take up to 45 minutes of their precious time! With fewer staff because of the labor shortage, most organizations don’t have enough schedulers to take that much time [filling open appointments], so those open slots just stay empty. That results in missed opportunities to treat patients and to bill for services in those slots.
If a provider isn’t working at full capacity, it just keeps pushing back that next available appointment. Automation is great for this. Why take up your scheduler’s time when automation can do it in five minutes? You can automate finding the right patients and reaching out via text message to pull them forward to fill those closer appointments. They can get in sooner, and providers can have fuller schedules. It’s a win-win if you can automate in this area.
Becker: Why do you think referral management is also an opportunity for improvement?
Roberts: Referrals are crucial to getting patients the care they need. They’re also important to specialists because they’re the lifeblood of specialty care. And they’re important for referring providers, too, because of their responsibility for their patients’ whole health. When referring providers send a patient for specialty care, they are often on the hook to make sure that their patient gets seen.
It seems so simple to refer a patient to another provider, but so much of that communication is still archaic compared to other industries and breaks down. We actually published a white paper a few months ago that found that more than half of providers send referrals by traditional fax. It’s very common. It’s easy to send a fax, but they’re hard to follow once sent. It’s difficult to keep track of your referred patients. In fact, as many as half of all referred patients don’t ever get scheduled for their appointment.
Becker: How can practices better address these gaps in patient referrals?
Roberts: There are two options, in my mind, that really stand out:
- Establish a direct line of two-way communication between referring providers and specialists. This helps to ensure that referred patients actually get scheduled and close the loop.
- For specialists, it’s crucial to have a tool that puts all their referrals in one place, no matter how they come in, whether it’s phone, fax or paper. Getting referrals into a single place helps to keep patients from getting lost in the shuffle.
There’s so much opportunity for technology to improve upon these access issues.
Becker: What advice do you give health systems for improving their patient access strategies?
Roberts: Overall, they need to work smarter with fewer people. The staffing crisis has made fewer staff a reality for many organizations. You’ve got to find tools that can help you bridge those care gaps. Choose tools that are easy to set up so that your staff can use them immediately and begin to automate tasks to increase efficiency. That way, they can focus on more important things, like creating a better patient experience. Patients also want to use technology, even older patients. Ultimately, the right tools allow you to see more patients and get them the care they need sooner. And that’s everyone’s goal—to provide the optimal care that patients need.