Improving Primary Care Access
Reducing the amount of demand makes it easier for the system to absorb current or future levels of demand. Improving access is all about increasing the ability of the system to predict and absorb demand (i.e., patients’ requests for care). One key way for a health care system to improve access is to reduce unnecessary demand for various services so that those patients needing a particular service can receive it in a timely way.
Changes for Improvement
Use Alternatives to One-on-One Visits
Several types of interactions between providers and patients can take the place of a traditional one-on-one clinic visit with a physician. Most of these interactions take place over the phone, by email, or in a face-to-face group setting. Following are some practical ideas to test as alternatives to the traditional one-on-one clinic visit.
- Use telephone contact, initiated either by the clinic or the patient, to check up on patient status in lieu of an appointment.
- For patients who may need a follow-up appointment, develop a system where the nurse checks in with the patient by phone two weeks prior to when the follow-up appointment would have occurred. If the patient’s condition warrants a visit, the appointment can be scheduled at that time. Otherwise, an additional follow-up contact with the patient can be made by phone.
- Create an alternative way for patients to refill medications (e.g., pharmacy clinic) or receive lab results (e.g., nurse calls patients with results).
- Physicians can conduct telephone consults with patients. These consults can be pre-scheduled, or planned at the end or beginning of each day.
- Nurses can staff telephone advice lines. If home care is appropriate, nurse interaction with a patient can save a visit to the provider. This requires that nurses use approved advice guidelines and follow protocols for some basic health problems such as UTI, suspected strep, etc. See Optimize the Care Team for more information.
- Email, telemedicine, and Internet communication between physicians or nurses and patients can be used to manage patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and congestive heart failure (CHF).
- Nurse clinics can be used to manage patients with chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, and for certain procedures such as sigmoidoscopies and stress tests.
- Group visits in which several patients meet together with a provider and/or the care team can be conducted. Group visits are an effective method not only for reducing demand but also for providing increased continuity of care and a supportive social network for patients. In a group visit, the physician might meet briefly with the group, but the patient receives all the services of a traditional visit by utilizing other members of the care team.
Manage and Decrease No-Show Appointments
No shows are often highly correlated with access delays and lack of continuity in patients seeing their own providers. Reducing the time between the appointment request and the day of the appointment, and matching patients and specific providers, can help decrease the number of patients who do not show up for an appointment.
In addition, practices can learn how to further reduce no shows by analyzing patterns related to no-show appointments:
- Know your patients. Some practices find that the actual number of patients who regularly do not appear for appointments is a small percentage of their total patient population. If this is the case, practices can find out more about these particular patients, determining if there are transportation, child care or other factors contributing to their appointment lapses.
- Examine "bump" rates. Often no-show rates are highly correlated with the number of appointments that are canceled by the practice. If the practice sends the message that the patient appointment is valued by reducing the number of practice cancellations then this can have an impact on patient behavior in meeting appointments.
- Analyze the types of visits for which patients are not keeping their appointments. Some practices find that re-check visits have the highest rates of no shows. If patients don’t see the value in the follow-up visit, they are less likely to keep the appointment. Providers can re-examine their return visit patterns and either eliminate unnecessary appointments or find alternative ways to check in with patients, such as phone follow-ups, email care, or follow-up appointments by a nurse, nurse practitioner or physician assistant.
Increase Return Intervals
The interval for a return appointment depends on the individual patient’s needs and on the discretion of the provider. Physicians should consider what is really necessary for the management of the patient, rather than "the usual" return visit interval. When medically appropriate, extending intervals for return appointments adds supply to the system because fewer future appointment slots are filled.
Eliminate automatic return visits at standard intervals (e.g., all patients come back in one month). Instead, base the clinical decision of return interval on each patient's clinical condition. Patients should be given a return appointment when it is needed and at an interval that is clinically meaningful. One way to reduce the variation among providers who see the same types of patients is to share information about return intervals as a means to promote discussion and dialogue, not as a way to impose and standardize arbitrarily.
Use "Max-Packing" During the Visit
"Max-packing" is doing as much for patients while they are in the office for any given visit, in order to reduce future work (in many cases, eliminating the need for extra appointments). Some strategies for max-packing include the following:
- Look for any patient who is on the schedule today and also has a future appointment. Take care of his or her future needs during today's visit and determine the appropriate time interval for scheduling the next follow-up appointment (if necessary).
- Use a checklist of preventive care to anticipate a patient's future needs, and take care of those needs today whenever possible.
Max-packing is a good option especially when the schedule is on time or ahead due to cancellations, no-shows, or unexpectedly short visits.