Creating an ideal schedule: Setting your own pace, optimizing your time

May 01, 2008, 4:00am

The appointment schedule is more than a list of upcoming patients. It's what sets the pace of your day - and largely formulates patients' impressions of your dermatology practice.

Key Points

The appointment schedule is more than a list of upcoming patients. It's what sets the pace of your day - and largely formulates patients' impressions of your dermatology practice.

So, why do so many dermatologists leave such an important part of their practice's infrastructure to chance? Most dermatologists seem not to recognize the critical role of their practice's appointment scheduling function, or if they do, they don't know where to start in making it work better.

The basics

Your time - and that of your physician colleagues and clinicians - is what's billable in the current U.S. reimbursement system. Not only is your time billable, it's precious and perishable. That is, you cannot put your time into inventory.

Think of your schedule as a seating chart for an airplane ready to take off. Ideally, the plane takes off with all seats filled. If it doesn't, the empty seats will never be paid for. Instead, the other passengers - or the airline - will pay the opportunity cost of the unfilled seats. In sum, your time must be used wisely, because it can't be stored away to be used later.

The scheduler

Next, consider the person you've hired to sell your time in your practice. Oftentimes, the least-trained, lowest-paid employee is the one who schedules your appointments. The scheduler is, in many ways, your practice's sales representative, creating an indelible first impression on your patients.

Besides practicing common courtesy, this person must be able to make good decisions when there's no clear guidance. Quite likely, your scheduling system provides little automated guidance, and is really just a manual calendar stored electronically.

Once you recognize that the schedule represents your time, you'll understand why you need a top-notch sales representative to be in charge of this precious - and perishable - commodity.

When selecting a scheduler, look for someone who is trainable. Consider aptitude, not just experience. Then train that employee on how to schedule your patients' most common medical complaints.

Training

Use real-life scenarios in the training. Get these scenarios from your current employees, or create some yourself so your scheduler will understand how to handle the real world versus the hypothetical.

Even if you have a great scheduler, you can't anticipate every scenario he or she will encounter. Keep your schedule simple so the employee doesn't get tangled up in scheduling red tape every time a patient calls.

Keep it simple

Create an appointment template with a limited number of types of slots. It's difficult to predict the exact time you'll need with each patient, so don't ask your scheduler to precisely forecast the time, either.

Furthermore, if you put too many "requirements" on each appointment slot, you'll find slots going unfilled because the "right" patient doesn't always come along.

Instead, use a template that has no more than five appointment types, such as "short" and "long."

Details about each patient can be entered into the "appointment reason" field in the scheduling system.

Keeping it simple allows the scheduler to efficiently fill seats so your plane doesn't take off with empty ones.

Before you unleash your scheduler, make sure your template is set up correctly.

There is no "ideal" template for a dermatologist. Your schedule should be a reflection of your work style and your pace. Don't pack the schedule with 10 patients an hour if it takes you 20 minutes to see each one. You'll just frustrate your patients - and the staff trying to manage them.

If you see 10 patients per hour, and your patients' failure-to-show rate is 10 percent, then schedule 11 to 12 patients per hour.