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  • Appointment systems

    General overview 

    The appointment system underpins many of the practice's operations. Your appointment system needs to be well designed and effectively administered. If it is, it will support patient care and safety. It will contribute to effective time management. It will assist you in monitoring patient attendance.

     

    Your appointment system can be paper based but it is more common to use a computerised system. Assistance with the choice of system can be sought from your professional college (see links). Ensure you and your staff receive comprehensive training so that all the system's features and functions can be fully utilised. Computerised appointment systems can be viewed by the practitioner throughout the day to help monitor waiting times and patient priorities. It can also help manage no-shows and cancellations.

    Inform new patients about your appointment policy and procedures. They need to know what your expectations are regarding cancellation of appointments, whether they will be notified if there are delays, and what 'reasonable access' actually means. This information can be presented as part of the information included in the form of a practice brochure and could include:

    • Policy on cancellations: patients need to be notified of cancellation conditions (e.g. cancellation charges, limit on number of cancellations, etc.)
    • What happens when patients do not present for scheduled appointments
    • What happens in the event of delays due to the practitioner's attendance at confinements (for obstetric patients) and the emergency care of patients
    • Advice about whether patients should phone before a scheduled appointment (e.g. 30-40 minutes) to check the schedule statuses. Times will vary according to type of practice and generally speaking, every patient attending general practice would not telephone beforehand.
    • Emergency arrangements
    • Any practice appointment reminder/confirmation processes, e.g. SMS
    • Online appointment availability and procedures
    • Variable lengths of consultations for varying treatments.

    For obstetricians, the following points could also be considered in the appointment scheduling:

    • Frequency of ante-natal visits
    • Your availability - will be required to leave rooms on occasions to deliver infants and attend other emergencies
    • Planning extended or annual holidays well in advance to manage anticipated deliveries
    • Advising patients early in their confinement that you may not be available at the expected delivery time.

    For proceduralists:

    • Follow-up appointments should be made at the time of booking the procedure or on discharge.

    Triage

    In the development of your appointment policy and protocols, you will also need to consider triage and delegations. A triage system allows identification of patients who require priority access to the practitioner/treatment due to potentially serious/urgent presentations.

    A particular skill required by front desk staff is the ability to prioritise, or triage patients - whether this is by patient presentation at the practice or by referral from another practitioner by phone, so that the sickest can be treated first. Examples:

    • Your protocol may be that all calls from another medical practitioner about a referral are forwarded directly to the practitioner to determine urgency and scheduling.
    • In a general practice, the staff may be delegated the task of determining the urgency of 'fit-in' appointments. If this is the case, the protocol would clearly state what complaints/symptoms described by the patient are immediately referred to the general practitioner or practice nurse (if employed) and when staff are expected to call for an ambulance.
    • General practices that employ a practice nurse may decide to transfer all callers with concerns immediately to the nurse for immediate triaging.
    • When patients present, they may also be triaged and, as appropriate, directed immediately to the practice nurse/clinically trained staff member and taken to a treatment room.

    Appointment systems should enable prioritising of appointments, either labelling or colour-coding 'urgent' appointments so practitioners can easily determine the status of patients in the waiting room.

    If your expectations of your staff with regards to triage do not match their qualifications and/or training, you are endangering your patients and leaving your staff (and hence yourself) exposed.

    Improving your practice

    The ideal features of an appointment system can be classified as supporting time management, patient satisfaction and patient compliance.

    Time management

    Ideally, an appointment system should include the following features to ensure the best time management:

    • Patient name and identifier (file identifier/address/phone/date of birth)
    • Date of appointment
    • Time of appointment
    • Flexible length of appointment
    • Practitioner name
    • Patient confidentiality
    • Be easy to use
    • Be easy to generate reports, such as:
      • waiting time (how long is the patient kept waiting after the scheduled appointment time?)
      • number of patients seen by session/day/week/month
       
    • Record of cancelled appointments
    • Capacity to change appointment times, whilst recording changes (audit trail)
    • Record of 'no shows'
    • Incorporate an effective triage system (patients requesting an appointment should always be asked if the appointment is urgent, especially prior to being put on hold)
    • Utilise a backup/restore system to maintain permanent records and to assist in restoration if the computer systems fail
    • Printing of appointment lists daily, as a measure against things such as power failure or loss of access to computers
    • Schedule your consultation lengths to enable adequate time to:
      • review previous patient notes or referral letters
      • obtain a history
      • conduct an assessment
      • discuss the management plan with the patient
      • document your findings
       
    • Ensure post-operative appointments have been scheduled at time of discharge
    • Schedule breaks to enable doctor to attend to phone calls, paperwork and documentation
    • Schedule adequate rest breaks

    Non-attendance of patients

    A patient's non-attendance or cancellation of a review appointment may be an indication of a dissatisfied patient but also can require clinical follow-up. When a patient does not present for a scheduled appointment, or leaves before being seen by medical staff, the practitioner should be notified. With existing patients, document why the appointment has been cancelled and what further action, if any, should or has been taken.

    If you have concerns about patient compliance, a letter could be sent to the patient or to the referring practitioner and a copy of this letter kept on the patient's file. If the condition is serious, the letter should be sent to the patient by registered post (see section below on compliance).

    Recording and monitoring patient attendance

    Use the appointment system for:

    • Following patients who do not attend or cancel appointments and who require medical follow-up
    • Monitoring patients where the doctor has particular concern about their heath status
    • Managing patients who have suffered an unexpected or adverse outcome.

    To maximise quality patient outcomes it is important that the appointment system alerts the practitioner to patient compliance and supports the recall and monitoring requirements.

    The practitioner should be made aware of all "no shows" and cancellations so that a decision can be made if further action is required.

    Computerised appointment system

    If a computerised appointment system is utilised, this will often be linked to the practitioner's desk where non-attenders and cancellations are retained on the daily scheduling screen.

    For computerised appointment systems, you should ensure clear protocol for staff regarding communication with practitioners about cancellations or rescheduled appointments, as these will disappear off the day's appointment list as they are cancelled or moved.

    Your practice protocol might be for staff to add cancelled or rescheduled appointments back onto the bottom of the day's appointment list with a notation. This would mean practitioners could easily review the changes and make a decision as to whether follow-up action is required.

    Paper-based appointment systems

    For paper-based appointment systems, this can be supported by the following:

    • Record at the bottom of each appointment page the names of the patients who cancelled or did not attend; the reason for cancellation/non-attendance and the rescheduled date, if applicable. This can be photocopied and presented to the practitioner.
    • Record the above details on a daily/weekly list and provide this to the doctor at the end of the session/day for action and its documentation. If documenting action on a day list, ensure these lists are archived as a record of patient compliance.
    • For existing patients, document in the patient's record why the appointment has been cancelled and what further action should, or has been taken. A cancellation/DNA 'stamp' could be used - the file can then be forwarded to the doctor for their 'decision' and signature.
    • If you have recalled a patient for a scheduled appointment an 'R' (recall) placed against their name will alert the staff and the practitioner if this patient cancels the appointment or does not arrive for the scheduled appointment.