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Four advantages of open access scheduling

Getting an appointment with a primary care physician takes about 20 days, yet there's rarely any advantage to delaying medical treatment. Patients who don't want to wait to see their primary care physician may go to an urgent care center or medical clinic in a pharmacy or big-box store. Open access scheduling—also called easy access or advance access—lets patients schedule non-emergency appointments the same day instead of waiting weeks or even months to be seen.

Open access scheduling doesn’t mean all your appointments are made the same day. You keep some slots open for same-day appointments so you can offer them to patients. If they prefer, patients can continue to book long-range appointments and schedule follow-up visits for low-demand times. Catherine Tantau, a healthcare consultant, recommends a mix of 65 percent open slots and 35 percent booked in advance. You need to find the right balance for your practice. On Mondays and Tuesdays, when demand for same-day appointments is typically high, you could keep most of your appointment slots open. Then devote more slots on the other, less-busy days to long-range appointments. By booking appointments in 15-minute intervals instead of the more common 10 minutes, you have some flexibility if one patient requires more time or an emergency arises.  

The Profitable Practice outlines four advantages of open access scheduling:

Fewer no-shows. Kaiser Permanente saw its no-show rates drop from 20 percent to almost zero with open access scheduling at its HMO in California. This finding makes sense. Patients who made their appointment weeks ago may forget their appointment, despite reminders, or may no longer need medical attention when the visit date rolls around. Patients who just made their appointment that morning are more likely to show up.

Shorter wait times. Allowing patients to schedule same-day appointments reduces wait times, both to get an appointment and once inside your office. In the open access model, physicians don’t have to squeeze patients who call with an “urgent” problem into a fully booked schedule. When you’re not double-booking patients, waiting times in your reception area or exam room are shorter. Reducing wait times can increase patient satisfaction.

Save time. Your staff won’t have to spend time sending appointment reminders. Your schedulers will spend less time on the phone. Instead of listening to people beg for an appointment and discussing the patient’s availability, your scheduler can simply say, “Would you like to come in today?” To minimize the time spent on the phone, use only three appointment types:

  • Personal – when a patient sees their preferred personal physician
  • Team – when a patient sees another physician in your absence
  • Unestablished – when the visit isn’t tied to a specific doctor

Physicians will need to see more patients during the first six to eight weeks of the transition to open access scheduling to clear the backlog of patients already on the books. However, after the backlog is cleared, physicians may actually work less. They won’t have to spend time making room in their schedule to see patients who call about an urgent problem that may not be truly urgent. To prevent your staff from being overworked during the transition, determine how many hours your physicians are currently working and how many patients they see each week. This information tells you how long it will take to clear your backlog and how many patients your staff can see each day under the new model.

Save money. Because you have fewer no-shows, clinical and administrative time is used more efficiently. Administrative staff spends less time scheduling and re-scheduling patients, and clinical staff spends less time triaging patients to determine who really needs to be seen today. Therefore, you reduce the cost of staffing.

For more strategies to increase patient access to your medical practice, read our blog Ways to Increase Patient Access to Your Medical Practice.