As every aspect of our lives gets busier, our expectations have changed with them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s our local coffee shop or the hospital ER, we no longer expect to wait for service. But while businesses such as restaurants have been quick to accept these changes and act accordingly, many healthcare services still struggle to find the balance between efficiency and providing a positive experience for patients. Well designed patient flow is key to ensuring that your hospital remains profitable while achieving what it set out to do in the first place – help people in need.
It’s no coincidence that healthcare services have a harder time achieving efficient patient flow than many other industries; few sectors are as heavily regulated as healthcare. But despite this, healthcare remains one of the most important areas for finding the balance between patient satisfaction and efficiency.
In an environment where resources and tempers are often stretched, effective patient flow can make the difference to patients and providers alike. The benefits are tangible: shorter waiting room queues, less strain on doctors, more accurate diagnoses and better patient outcomes.
One of the major considerations for patient flow is language. One in five people over the age of five in the US speak a language other than English at home, according to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau data. That means that the odds of a limited English proficiency (LEP) patient walking through the doors of your hospital are higher than at any other point in history. In the absence of properly trained medical interpreters, language difficulties and cultural misalignment combine to create an opportunity for miscommunication, resulting in not only delays and bottlenecks but potentially serious consequences for patient outcomes. Statistics have shown that these patients simply do not receive the same standard of care as their English speaking counterparts and are more likely to experience harm due to language and cultural barriers.
With some hospitals now dealing with hundreds of languages in their local area (Columbus, OH, for example sees over 126 languages in their waiting rooms), it is no longer possible for multi-lingual hospital staff to provide interpretation. Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) services such as Martti provide healthcare professionals with instantaneous access to medically trained interpreters with just the touch of a finger. Beyond the time saved by not having to wait for an interpreter, these services contribute to improved patient flow by de-bottlenecking the consultation process and reducing the stress on doctors as they attempt to effectively diagnose patients.
Another factor for improving patient flow is designing waiting rooms and patient pathways with the movement of patients and practitioners in mind. Simple operational changes such as allocating space for patients filling out forms can reduce congestion at check-in counters and smooth patients’ movements through the consultation process. Seemingly obvious improvements such as clear signage are often overlooked in healthcare environments, and need to cater for non-English speaking patients as well.
Other tactics for optimizing patient flow within your practice include making workstations readily available for doctors to write up their notes on the go, rather than returning to their offices.
Keep in mind that healthcare can learn from other industries. One of things holding our system back from radical improvement is our belief that healthcare is different. This belief has made us risk averse and fearful of innovation. It’s time to put those fears aside and open our perspectives up to solutions from outside our own sometimes myopic industry focus. In fact, many of the improvements applicable to patient flow come from the retail and manufacturing sectors, which have dedicated years of research to this problem.
So the next time you’re picking up your morning coffee, stop for a moment and observe how people move and communicate – you might find the key to improving patient flow.