5 Strategies to Optimize Your Patient Flow and Cycle Time

It’s important to consider your patient cycle time—the period of time between a patient’s arrival and departure—when setting up automated messaging solutions, like appointment reminders. A long cycle time can have negative consequences—namely, lost time and, thus, lost revenue—and so it may be worth evaluating your cycle time to see if you can increase your practice’s revenue.

Improving patients’ cycle time is particularly important for busy practices or whose services are in high demand. Assuming that both staff and providers are treating patients with respect and aren’t rushing them through in an obvious way, generally, the more efficient the cycle time, the better the experience is for both the patient and the practice. The practice has time to see more patients each day and, thus, make a higher profit. And the patient receives valuable services without having to wait for a long period of time.

Weighing the Benefits of Improved Patient Flow and Cycle Times

Regardless of patient volume, practices can be much more efficient in how they streamline their patient flow and reduce their cycle time. Providers we partner with, for example, typically see between 10 and 20 patients a day on average, though this number varies from specialty to specialty. Assuming the demand is there, I fully believe that providers can see an average of 40 patients a day (though, again, this figure will vary from specialty to specialty), spending roughly five minutes with each patient, and still provide high-quality service.

Let’s consider the potential ROI from enhancing your practice’s cycle time. If, for example, a provider added just one more patient a day, that equates to an additional ~$20–$40K in revenue each year—most of which will be profit, as most practice costs are fixed. So if a provider takes on 10 more patients a day, that translates to an additional ~$200–400K in profit each year.

As you can see, there’s great value in improving your practice’s patient flow and cutting down on your cycle time.

Painting a Clear Picture of Your Patient Flow

If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you’re ready to take the necessary steps toward a more efficient patient flow and, better yet, a significant increase in your practice’s revenue. However, before you can make worthwhile changes, you must first have a solid grasp of your practice’s patient flow to determine bottlenecks and identify what’s causing them. That’s where flow mapping and cycle-time measurement come in.

If you haven’t already, I suggest starting your patient flow analysis by measuring the time it takes a typical person to complete an appointment. You, or even a staff member, can complete this task.

Begin mapping out your patient flow by breaking down each component of the visit:

1. Check-in

  • Completing paperwork
  • Validating insurance
  • Collecting co-payments
  • Waiting for transfer to exam room

2. Patient intake

  • Transferring patient to room
  • Checking vitals
  • Completing health questionnaire
  • Waiting for provider

3. Actual appointment

  • Building a relationship with the patient
  • Discussing reasons for the patient’s visit
  • Diagnosing the patient
  • Prescribing medications
  • Entering notes into the EMR/EHR

4. Check-out

  • Moving patient to check-out
  • Collecting payments not taken at check-in
  • Scheduling future appointments

Next, analyze how long each segment takes and identify areas where your practice can improve.

Here’s a sample cycle time for a 60-minute office visit, followed by some questions to help you brainstorm effective ways for making meaningful changes:

Appointment StepTime (measured in minutes)
Wait at check-in2
Complete check-in tasks5
Wait in sitting area/waiting room15
Transfer to exam room3
Patient intake/Wait for provider18
Time with provider10
Transfer to check-out2
Wait at check-out2
Total cycle time


      • What can you as practice manager do to make the doctor’s time with the patient as efficient and valuable as possible?  
      • What can the staff take off the doctor’s plate to allow him or her to spend as much of his or her time with patients as possible?
      • What can the patient do before or after the visit that isn’t required to be done while sitting in the waiting room?

Make no mistake: Improving patient flow is a group effort, requiring all hands on deck—but it’s an undertaking worth your time and energy.

Strategies to Streamline Patient Flow and Reduce Cycle Times

Once you’ve identified areas where you can begin implementing change, it’s time to take action.

Let’s take a look at five patient flow strategies worth considering to optimize your practice’s patient cycle time:

        1. Move as much of the process to the front end of the visit as possible. Collect all payments and questionnaires, and perhaps even schedule follow-up visits. Putting in the work on the front end makes everyone’s life easier on the back end.
        2. Give patients the opportunity to complete as much pre-appointment work as possible at home prior to the visit. Most practices have pages’ worth of paperwork to complete, which can take up a lot of time. Streamline the paperwork process by, for example, enabling patients to complete the necessary paperwork online. (Tip: Don’t forget to follow up by politely reminding them to complete everything before their appointment.)
        3. Provide an arrival time instead of an appointment time in your appointment reminder messages. Calculate this time based on what is required of patients before their actual appointment with the doctor. For instance, if a patient’s appointment is at 10 a.m., but paperwork will take roughly 10 minutes to complete, ask the patient to arrive at the office no later than 9:50 a.m.
        4. Link your practice to Google maps or some other mapping tool in your reminder messages. This simple action on your part facilitates easy trip planning for patients and provides them with estimated travel times.
        5. Inform patients when a provider is running behind—or even ahead of—schedule. Gone are the days of making patients wait an hour or more to be seen—or expecting them to wait twice as long for their appointment time because the provider is running behind. Keeping patients in the loop mitigates undue stress and frustration on everyone’s part, and, perhaps more importantly, communicates to your patients that you respect and appreciate their time.

In a nutshell, streamlined patient flows and short cycle times are what’s going to boost your revenue, reduce operating expenses, and improve patient satisfaction. These two key techniques will also be what sets you apart from competing practices.

In the future, I believe there will be a time when patients can receive real-time updates on the exact time they need to leave their current location to arrive at the office in time for their appointment. In addition, I predict a shift in medical practices’ involvement in patient scheduling: I foresee medical practices being able to move patients up and reschedule in real time as unexpected occurrences occur, like no-shows, last-minute cancellations, traffic accidents, and so forth.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the healthcare industry.

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