Monday, February 15, 2010

Plays well with others

The backlog blitz is coming soon! Not soon enough, of course, but we still have some preparations to make.

Our biggest challenge comes from outside our office. Many patients referred to us require medical imaging – ultrasound or CT scanning – as part of their evaluation. If one of these tests is necessary, we try to coordinate it with the person’s first visit with us. For people traveling from out-of-town, that means the test needs to be scheduled on the same day as their office visit.

The problem? Medical imaging clinics have backlogs too. Wait times for ultrasounds and CTs can be weeks long. As we start to schedule appointments within 7-14 days, we’ll need better access to these tests. And it looks like we’re going to get it!

We contacted several of the private medical imaging clinics (for ultrasounds) and the health region’s medical imaging department (for CTs) to explain our situation and ask for their help. The response was gratifying. They have offered to hold a number of appointment slots for us. If the slots aren’t filled 7 days in advance, they will release the slots. This will be particularly valuable in the case of CT scans. Our staff spends a significant amount of time coordinating CTs and office appointments. Knowing in advance when CT times are available will simplify scheduling.

An in-house consideration is how we can streamline our appointment approval process. Currently, consultation requests arrive by fax and are reviewed by staff. A tentative appointment date is set, and staff forward the request to the urologist. Our staff is experienced in triaging consultation letters and anticipating what testing the patient may require. The urologist will review the letter and accept the arrangements, or ask for an earlier appointment time, or additional testing.

This process has worked for us in the current climate of 4-6 weeks wait times. That is, the physicians can leave the appointment approvals in their inboxes for several days without throwing off the scheduling process. However, when wait times are as short as 1-2 weeks, approvals will need to be much more prompt. We’re reminding the physicians of this and will track performance so as to offer individual encouragement as needed.

Ideally, turnaround time for appointment approval would be instantaneous. We can do this by setting guidelines for approving appointments for certain urologic conditions. With clear guidelines, staff can set up appointments and testing without needing to check with the physicians. Setting up this “pre-approval” process requires:

1. Clear and accurate description of the clinical problem in the referral letter

Sometimes, this is straightforward, as in the case of vasectomy referrals. The single word “vasectomy” is sufficient to let us know the purpose of the visit. Staff set up vasectomy appointments without needing review by the doc.

On other occasions, it’s not clear what the clinical problem is. This may be because there is uncertainty as to what the patient’s symptoms indicate, or what the test results mean. In this case, it’s up to the specialist to work toward a diagnosis. On other occasions, the information needed to make a diagnosis is available, but hasn’t been sent with the referral letter. For one common urologic problem – blood in the urine (hematuria) – we’ve had success with sending a diagnostic algorithm to referring physicians. Circulating this algorithm has greatly increased the amount of information we receive along with the initial referral letter. Setting up similar algorithms for common urologic conditions will simplify things for our staff and for referring physicians.

2. Consistent evaluation process by urologists

The hematuria algorithm was approved by our entire group. Ideally, we would have similar agreement on other diagnostic pathways. It’s not always easy, though.

I recently surveyed our group about how we should approach referrals about several common, benign urologic conditions. There was considerably more variation than I anticipated. Some of the docs supported giving guidelines to staff, while others want to review the referral letter and decide for themselves whether additional testing should be coordinated with the consultation appointment. Those urologists falling in the second group cited their desire for patients to have a single visit, whenever possible. They were concerned that they may miss the opportunity to schedule necessary testing at the time of that visit.

We may be able to reach consensus around pre-consultation testing, but in the meantime, I’ll try to determine individual preferences and compile them for our staff. Even though it’s somewhat complicated to deal with 8 different preferences, it should still speed up the appointment approval process.

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