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The Importance of Managing Patient Flow Accurately

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All over the world, hospitals face a critical problem, which is that there are always more people seeking treatment than there are facilities to provide care for them. This puts pressure on administrators, and in turn the health care professionals who work under them, to try and move patients from inpatient to outpatient status as rapidly as possible.

Most of the time this is beneficial to the patient and to the health care system, however from time to time serious problems can arise, and there are numerous documented (and embarrassingly reported) incidents where patients have been moved through the system too rapidly.  When this happens, the outcomes can be serious:

  • The patient may suffer harm or a worsening of their condition. They may also spread infection and disease to others if not treated sufficiently.
  • Health care professionals may face disciplinary action, have their reputation tarnished, and may suffer stress due to the feeling of having failed their patients.
  • Administrators could potentially lose their positions if there are too many incidents occurring, the health care facility could have its reputation damaged. In the very worst of cases, the administrator may face charges of criminal negligence, and may be fined or even imprisoned.

An example of this occurred in Canada in 2011, whereby a patient died as the result of negligence by an emergency room worker. Effective management of patient flow would may avoided that unfortunate death altogether.

Managers of healthcare practices of all kinds increasingly recognise that accurate patient flow is key to improving efficiency and increasing revenue for the practice, along with providing a positive and safe experience for the patient.

The principles of effective patient flow management

To be effective, patient flow needs to be systematic, but not to the point where it takes on the characteristics of a production line. Production lines dehumanise the situation and can lead to incidents such as in the Canadian example mentioned above.

Everyone involved in the process from first admission to after-care follow-up should have knowledge of who every patient is, their status, and their whereabouts throughout the movement through different stages of patient flow. As the technology available in hospitals advances, patient flow systems should increase in both effectiveness and accuracy.

It’s the human factor that can mess things up

Attention needs to be paid to the systems implemented to improve how patients move seamlessly from check-in to discharge, so that doctors and nurses can operate efficiently and maximise time spent with patients.

Unfortunately, no matter how automated systems become there is always some susceptibility to human error, and things can easily be overlooked. It can be time consuming to enter in patient data with so much pressure to move people through quickly. This can lead to steps being skipped (“I’ll fill it in later”) and sometimes patients being overlooked, not receiving the correct treatment, or being incorrectly handed off.

Yet at least part of this problem can be resolved thanks to existing technology.  Online transcription services such as Syberscribe are able to significantly cut down the amount of manual data entry required to be performed by staff.  This frees staff to be more efficient in all their tasks, including reducing bottlenecks in waiting areas, ensuring that patients are attended to, and that patients don’t get overlooked, lost, or misdirected.

Technologies like this are being increasingly adopted within the industry and may soon become standard. The benefits are obvious, but technophobia may be acting as a disincentive to change among some administrators who prefer more traditional methods of administration.

Such a sentiment is unfortunate because modern systems are designed to be easy to operate, and many of them can be learned in around 15 minutes or less. These software systems were designed for medical administrators, not computer engineers – so these are changes to be welcomed, not feared.

Poor patient flow management is too costly not to address

Managing patient flow is a more difficult task than many people imagine, and there are all kinds of factors that contribute to patient flow problems, not all of which can be attributed to the individual health care facilities. It’s a complex problem affected by politics, technology, management decisions, and sometimes even the patients themselves.

There’s no single “magic bullet” that will address all the potential problems in managing patient flow, but at the very least, facilities should look at where their systems could be improved. Nothing less than an honest internal audit of patient flow management will reveal where improvement is necessary.

As outlined above, if these needs are not addressed the financial cost could be quite high.  More importantly, there are other costs to consider that go well beyond monetary value. An optimally efficient healthcare industry is a safer one, and that has to be better for all.

A healthcare facility’s success depends upon the accurate and timely flow of patient information, and an integrated approach to manage patient information with voice capture may be the most effective solution to this.