Recent research by Merritt Hawkins, a physician search and consulting firm, revealed the average wait times for five specialties in 15 large metropolitan areas. The answers in many cases were surprising. For instance, according to the survey, it takes an average of 66 days to schedule a visit with a family physician in Boston. In New York, it takes 26 days. Practices that are so busy their wait time extends from weeks into months should take steps to remedy this as much as possible, both to increase patient satisfaction and perform more procedures to maintain financial health.

"Finding a physician who can see you today, or three weeks from today, can be a challenge, even in urban areas where there is a high ratio of physicians per population," Merritt Hawkins President Mark Smith said in a release. "The demand for doctors is simply outstripping the supply."

As this is the case, physician practices need to put real effort into managing how busy they are and how soon they can see patients. It's important not to overtax a practice's resources, but long wait times can mean losing potential patients to other providers, or to the emergency room. If a practice is still accepting new patients, it should ensure those same patients can get an appointment in a timely manner.

Strategies for busy practices
Physician practices that are busy enough to have the kind of wait times the Merritt Hawkins survey uncovered should take a close look at how they do business. It may be possible to free doctors and nurses from tasks that don't have much to do with patient care and allow for more appointments to be scheduled in a day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Curtail sales visits. Many physician practices see pharmaceutical company and medical device sales representatives on a regular basis. Though no one appointment with a sales rep is extremely long, enough of them can really add up. According to Physicians News, some practices have decided to close themselves to sales representatives entirely. Though representatives can provide education, some practices find the time commitment is simply too much. Alternatively, practices can make a commitment to schedule representative visits on their own terms. This may make more room in a physician's schedule.
  • Consider group appointments. According to the Washington Post, shared medical appointments are becoming increasingly common. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic has conducted 8,600 of them in the past three years. Almost 12 percent of doctors in the American Academy of Family Physicians offer group appointments. These appointments are convenient for physicians, who can offer them to groups of patients with the same medical concerns or ongoing conditions, and can be good for patients as well. The Post points out patients can learn more from a group appointment, where many people are all free to ask their own questions, than they might at solo visits.
  • Save time on medical billing tasks. When physicians and nurses take on medical billing activities as part of their workloads, it prevents them from spending as much time as they can on patient care. This makes a busy practice even busier. Instead, physician practices should collaborate with a revenue cycle management company. Partnerships with these companies can help physicians have more time and additionally make more money for each procedure performed because medical billing and coding firms have specific expertise in negotiating reimbursement with payers.