10 Practical Ways for Physician Practices to Grow and Maintain a High Patient Volume
Physicians take an oath to uphold specific ethical standards. Although the most widely known one is the Hippocratic Oath, historians aren’t even sure Hippocrates himself wrote it.
These types of oaths are steeped in intention, but most of them focus primarily on patient care. As today’s doctors know, there’s much more to being a physician than caring for patients. With healthcare spending at such an astronomical level in the United States, medical practices are big business.
Along with patient care, physicians across all specialties are responsible for numerous administrative tasks, from clinical documentation to management of insurance issues and many in between. As we mentioned in our physician burnout guide, almost half a doctor’s workday is spent on administrative work, while only 27 percent is spent on direct clinical care. That means that for each hour of clinical face time they spend with patients, an additional two are filled with administrative and clerical tasks.
Administrative burden is only part of the business of healthcare for physicians. They often face a grueling schedule, working an average of 50 hours per week and seeing about 20 patients daily.
Even with this Herculean effort and the trillions of dollars they generate annually in economic activity, some doctors are still struggling to recoup their level of pre-COVID-19 pandemic patient volume. A poll conducted by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) found that 30 percent of practices report this year’s visit volumes are about the same as last year, while 15 percent noted they are below the visit volumes they saw in 2021.
At many U.S. hospitals, many outpatient and procedural volumes remain below pre-pandemic levels, and operating room volumes are still below 2019 levels. Almost one-third of hospitals are operating on negative margins, and emergency department visits are projected to decline through 2029.
Why Patient Volume is Important
Does a one or two patient difference in volume really matter for physician practices? The answer is a definitive yes. As the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) notes, volume in physician practices not only affects physician income but also reverberates throughout the healthcare system. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 20 percent of the healthcare dollar is paid to physicians.
The smaller the practice, the more risk of closure when patient volume markedly decreases. An estimated eight percent of all physician practices nationally (about 16,000 total), closed in 2020 due to the financial strain of the pandemic. Many of them were small or independent practices and/or located in rural communities. Some practices that didn’t close completely had to furlough at least one or two staff members.
Medical practices fighting to keep afloat due to low patient volume are facing more obstacles than deferred care and patient reluctance for in-office appointments because of fear of being exposed to one of the contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus. A prime example is the lack of appropriate staffing, both for clinical and administrative roles.
Another reason? Too much waiting. Median patient total wait times range from 20-25 minutes. The average wait time for new patient doctor appointments is 24 days.
In this age of healthcare consumerism, patients want the convenient and flexible options provided by contactless care. That means being able to complete scheduling and registration tasks on their mobile device at any time, anywhere. It means less exposure to crowded waiting rooms and high-touch areas and being able to communicate with their physician(s) 24/7 via a patient portal. The availability of these options typically translates to increased engagement and satisfaction for both providers and patients.
A Myriad of Reliable Methods
No matter the cause, low or declining patient volume is a problem healthcare providers must address — or risk closing their practice. How is this achieved? In multiple ways.
- Focusing on patient flow.
Although this term is often used interchangeably with the patient volume because of the many similarities, it describes the movement of patients through a healthcare facility and is an essential component of process management. Good patient flow is a key facet of the patient experience and reduces pressure on provider staff, while poor flow leads to delays in treatment.
- Using a patient wait list for next-available appointments.
In this scenario, physician practices can proactively schedule patients more at risk for adverse outcomes from delayed care. As the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) recommends, the front office staff should be strategic in their scheduling process — every unfilled appointment represents a loss of income.
Other methods for increasing patient volume and balancing demand include:
- Ensuring a friendly and capable front-office operation
- Offering virtual care options, such as telehealth and remote patient monitoring
- Decreasing no-shows and cancellations by utilizing automated appointment reminders
- Focusing on patient engagement
- Employing a strategic population health management program to identify high-risk patients
- Scheduling follow-up appointments and rescheduling deferred appointments
- Monitoring and predicting volume demand
- Offering payment and financing options
At Epion Health, our HIPAA-compliant and HITRUST-certified patient engagement platform automates and integrates patient access to alleviate administrative bottlenecks for physicians and their staff members. It also helps physician practices and ambulatory clinics provide anytime, anywhere care that drives greater efficiency, engagement and revenue — all of which lead to sustained patient volume. Check out the success stories of some of our clients who have achieved better outcomes and grown their patient volume by using our suite of solutions.