Analyze processes in your medical office

By Peter Weverka

As a healthcare administrator, you must meet dual goals that often conflict with one another every day: You need to attend to your patients' healthcare needs but still keep patients moving efficiently through your office. How can you prevent a patient backlog but continue to give patients the quality care that they deserve and expect? How can you treat patients thoroughly but also keep them moving steadily through your office?

The surest way to meet these seemingly opposing goals is to assess the workflow processes in your office and systematically make these processes more efficient.

The workflow process

"Workflow" refers to the tasks performed in an office and how the staff members complete these tasks, including:

  • Which staff members are responsible for which tasks.
  • The order in which staff members complete the tasks.
  • How staff members synchronize tasks.
  • Where staff members complete tasks.
  • How staff members share information to support the completion of tasks.

By conducting a workflow assessment, you can evaluate how these different workflow processes relate to one another. Then you can change your workflow processes to increase efficiency in handling your flow of patients.

Assess the workflow

In a workflow assessment, start by examining how your workflow processes currently function. Track the progress of a sample patient and the patient's data through your office, and examine the workflow processes for each step of the way.

Create a role and responsibility matrix

Assess the responsibilities of each staff member — administrators, receptionists, nurses, medical assistants, and physicians — to the patient. Consider the tasks that each staff member performs during a typical visit — from patient check-in and diagnosis, to writing the patient's examination report. For example, determine your office's check-in procedure as well as an associated estimate of time.

After determining the staff members' responsibilities and roles, develop a matrix for this information. You can use the matrix to find out which tasks are the responsibility of each staff member. Refer to the matrix to see who interacts with the patient at each stage of the visit and the range of responsibilities to the patient.

The task examination phase is an ideal way to reveal all of the tasks that are assigned to or assumed by each staff member. You might discover that staff members can take on new tasks that they aren't currently assigned.

Examine task sequence

Your office staff members must perform certain tasks in sequence, but they can perform others simultaneously. For example, a nurse can check a patient's vital statistics while an administrator assembles and delivers the patient's medical records to a physician or an examination room. By identifying simultaneous tasks and assigning them to different staff members, you can increase the speed of your office's workflow. Two or more staff members can often be working at the same time on behalf of a patient.

Postpone tasks to after patient-receiving hours

Consider which tasks you can postpone until your office is no longer receiving patients. For example, staff members can record and store examination results when patients are not in the office. By postponing administrative tasks until patient-receiving hours are over, you can devote more time to treating patients and facilitating the flow of patients through your office. What's more, staff members can better focus on administrative tasks if they have chunks of uninterrupted time.

Examine physical resources

A workflow assessment should also involve assessing your office's physical resources and their use in serving or treating patients. Create a resource and responsibility matrix to document the physical resources — for example, computers, examination rooms, and examination equipment — that are required for each patient during a typical visit. Skillfully employing these resources can do as much to facilitate the workflow in your office as skillfully employing staff members.

Improve the workflow

After you have completed your assessment and you understand the workflow processes in your office, your next step is to optimize your office's workflow by addressing any problems that you identified.

Address problems systematically

Begin by ranking problems according to their severity and addressing the most severe problems first. Then, identify a systematic way to resolve problems. For example, investigate each problem, taking notes as you go, and if the problem is critical, have more than one staff member evaluate it. Staff members can resolve some problems, but other problems might require decisions by senior staff members.

Focus on the following areas:

  • The procedure for scheduling appointments
  • The procedure for storing appointment information as well as the storage location of the information
  • The required tasks for a patient's visit, including the duration of each task and the staff member responsible for performing the task
  • Resources needed for each task during a patient's visit
  • The procedure for giving feedback to patients

Solicit improvements from staff

Engaging the entire staff in the workflow assessment is essential. Staff members might be leery about their jobs being redefined or redirected, but by soliciting their ideas, you empower staff members and boost morale. The workflow improvement process is also your chance to educate staff members about the optimal workflow processes and help staff members understand others' roles and how their own roles fit in the overall workflow.

Improving workflow is an ongoing activity. Devise a method so that staff members can regularly submit their ideas for improving workflow processes. You could devote part of a regular staff meeting to the topic or implement a "suggestion box." Periodically review the ideas submitted by your staff members, and consider incorporating their ideas in your office's procedures.

Focus on workflow

Keeping a steady flow of patients moving through your office and treating those patients thoroughly are not necessarily contradictory goals. By focusing on your office's workflow processes, you can bring these goals in line with each other. You can help your office become more efficient, use your staff members and physical resources to maximum capacity, and meet your patients' needs.

About the author     Peter Weverka is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California. He has written many computer books as well as articles for various publications, including Harper's Magazine and SPY Magazine.

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