Guest Commentary: Prepare now for post-COVID patient access

Most medical groups are in the midst of confronting a multitude of issues and changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This multifaceted crisis has created significant operational challenges, including substantial decreases in volume, managing labor expense through furlough or compensation adjustments, increasing supply expense for personal protective equipment (PPE), and rapid deployment of telehealth—all while revenue has been significantly impacted.

The altered landscape presents U.S. healthcare providers with an unavoidable question: What will our operations look like post COVID-19?

In some cases, providers are also asking whether or not their medical group will even survive.

One important way to stabilize operations is to resume patient flow as soon as possible, when allowed. The planning for patient access should take place now.

For years, many medical groups have struggled with primary-care patient access, but not all have been successful in providing adequate access to the patient populations they serve. Mastering patient access—that is, equalizing supply and demand—isn’t easy. However, addressing the challenge with a structured, data-driven approach will help ensure a higher level of success.

Understand patient volume

Analyzing your pre-COVID-19 volumes for clinic visits is a crucial part of preparing for and predicting volumes post-COVID-19.

To establish new provider schedules moving forward, review the past 12 months (pre-COVID-19) of office visits, tracking and trending your visit volumes per provider for each day of the week. This will help you anticipate higher demand days so you can more appropriately staff in the future.

Going a step further and analyzing visit types—new patients, physicals, follow-up visits—will help inform patient mix going forward.

To assist you in planning your long-term telehealth strategy, measure telehealth volume if you recently implemented telehealth and further analyze those visits to determine which visit types worked best in that format. This will establish a baseline for what visits are appropriate for telehealth in the future as telehealth is expanded and more commonplace.

Telehealth will likely play a much larger role in the future and can serve as an additional option for patients. This may not only improve patient engagement but also help to address patient access.

Examine future capacity 

As mentioned, patient access has been an issue for many medical groups even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Optimizing provider schedules and offering patient-friendly tactics become more important when a group practice or hospital department is challenged with preparing for pent-up demand.

Once patients return to the workforce, they may be more likely to request appointments outside the normal workday. Schedules may need to be expanded to early morning, evening and weekend hours to align with patient demand.

Ensure that all hours are covered by rotating providers’ schedules to allow for greater access over longer periods of time. Staff up with more providers on higher demand days, which are typically Mondays and Fridays. Make sure provider headcounts are scheduled evenly throughout the rest of the week so you don’t end up shorthanded some days. Set a minimal provider-level standard for clinics.

Revisiting your model of care is even more important while the COVID-19 crisis is still current. Now is a good time for tapping the capabilities of advanced practice clinicians (APCs) and, in the process, ensuring guidelines are established for which conditions should be seen by physicians and which can be handled by the APCs.

Many groups have instituted more defined triage processes during the pandemic, and this should be a strategy that continues moving forward to ensure patients are seen in the appropriate setting—office, virtual or urgent care. Utilizing urgent care clinics where appropriate helps to shift urgent care needs to the appropriate setting and ensures the office is available for chronically ill, preventive health and follow-up visits.

It is unlikely that all of your clinics will open in one day. Phasing in these openings will enable you to gain insight into real-time demand while allowing the ramping up of patient volume, as well as provider and clinic staffing. Begin with a smaller number of primary care clinics and move to medical and surgical specialties. Consider if you may need to have respiratory clinics for potential COVID-19 patients and/or follow-up visits once the clinics reopen.

Prioritize patient backlogs

It may be difficult to measure the true total backlog of patients, but history should be a good indicator of future appointment demand.

Backlog consists of all patients scheduled into the future prior to the pandemic, as well as those patients who had to be canceled because of clinic closures. Take into consideration the telehealth visits that have taken place in the interim and may need follow-up. Once you know your pre-COVID-19 daily, weekly or monthly visit volume, use that as a minimum number of slots and expand schedules from there.

Adding just two appointments per day per provider can result in 460 more patients per year: 2 slots x 5 days per week x 46 weeks = 460. If you have a high no-show rate, consider increasing the number of slots or altering scheduling guidelines to accommodate unscheduled openings.

Prioritize which patients will be contacted first to be seen once the clinics reopen. You may stratify patients by any number of approaches, including by diagnosis, risk, or in order of first canceled visits.

Utilize telehealth visits where appropriate and create guidelines for scheduling staff regarding appropriate visits for telehealth. Many organizations are taking advantage of the current downtime to do Medicare Well Visit exams via telehealth.

Since a majority of telehealth programs were rapidly set up to accommodate need, now is the time to go back and put guidelines and structure in place around how these visit types can be maintained and incorporated as an option for patients and providers.

Establish a new normal  

Develop an action plan up front to ensure success. Action plans provide a roadmap for the entire care team. In the process they can promote engagement and establish accountability. Action plans also help keep tasks on track and, ideally, provide a historical documentation of process changes. Measuring and monitoring the progress allows for corrections to be made midstream, if needed.

Create the plan now so that there is no lost time once clinics reopen. This will help establish your staffing needs and guide when and where to deploy staffing.

Take advantage of the good habits that were established during the pandemic, such as daily huddles and enhanced communication. These techniques not only should be utilized during a time of crisis but should become a part of your normal daily operations.

This is an important time to reset and not just return to operations as usual. It is an opportunity to rethink your operations and patient flow, reorganizing key processes for greater efficiency as you work things through.

Take advantage of the new visit modalities and reexamine your care model. Ensure staff are always optimizing their skills and working at their top of their license. Be intentional at examining every aspect of patient flow, and take this opportunity to create the most efficient operation that best serves the patient population, promotes high patient satisfaction, and engages providers and staff.

These are difficult days, no doubt. No group practice or hospital department would have chosen COVID-19 as a means of rebooting operations. But with a little planning and preparation, your team can emerge better than it’s ever been at caring for patients and realizing its potential.

Wagner is COO at AMGA Consulting, where she is responsible for assessing and directing physician practice management engagements to improve overall performance and operational efficiencies.