Healthcare leaders attempting to regain some of the revenue lost during the COVID-19 shutdowns now face a formidable challenge. The American Hospital Association estimates that U.S. hospitals and health systems lost $202.6 billion in just the four months from March 1 through June 30—roughly $50.7 billion per month.
Many variables feed into the overall financial impact for individual healthcare organizations, of course—including geographic location, local ordinances, specialty designations, and speed of service resumption. Regardless, every health system has experienced revenue shortfalls caused by disruptions to their service pipeline. The question now is how to generate enough additional revenue to cover some of those losses without incurring additional operating expenses.
We may be able to take practical inspiration from an unlikely source: the hospitality industry. By solving for something one healthcare organization calls “the motel problem,” health systems can increase workflow efficiency, staff satisfaction, clinic volume, and revenue.
The Motel Problem
Accurately assigning exam rooms with enough flexibility to accommodate continuously changing provider and patient schedules remains a perennial challenge for health systems. In fact, during a recent Porter Research study of 100 executive leaders, roughly two-thirds indicated their health systems lack visibility into exam room utilization.
The leaders of one academic medical center’s 65-physician neurology clinic began referring to this capacity challenge as “the motel problem.” How do motels consistently keep their rooms full of paying customers?. In contrast, their own exam rooms often appeared full on the scheduling spreadsheet but actually sat empty. Staff afraid of accidentally double-booking the space would then let those rooms sit idle.
Despite increasing the administrative time devoted to room management, underutilization in the neurology clinic caused rising patient wait times, lowered physician satisfaction, and decreased revenue. If the Porter Research survey is any indication, this situation is not unique. Approximately 72 percent of the survey’s respondents felt their room utilization rates were significantly subpar. Most said their organizations ran at about 20 points below the 80-89 percent utilization level they deemed optimal.
As the neurology department leadership mused about “the motel problem,” they looked at the similarities between motel and healthcare room management needs. Motels must match each guest to a room with the right accommodations (e.g., two doubles versus one king-sized bed) on the right dates. Health systems must take that same workflow one step further by matching the right patient and the right provider to a properly equipped exam room at the right time. In both cases, empty rooms mean lost revenue. Utilization is key.
Consequently, they came to believe that they needed a system that optimized room capacity with much of the same visibility and flexibility as a hotel or motel reservation system. That would require bringing together data about room availability, room attributes, provider schedules and patient needs—and making the resulting intelligence accessible through real-time displays.
A meaningful solution
When it comes to capacity management within a health system, the real complexity lies with provider and patient schedules. The physical space is always there; it’s the “people” part of the equation that’s fluid. What happens when Dr. Johnson suddenly falls ill, for example? Or Dr. Smith needs to attend a last-minute meeting? Or when patient Mrs. Brown reschedules her appointment?
Clinics typically rely on relatively static spreadsheets or siloed software to track room utilization. But these tools aren’t designed to make such real-time adjustments, especially at the enterprise level—which means the exam rooms assigned to an absent Dr. Johnson or Dr. Smith likely remain empty even as patients wait to be seen by other providers.
On the other hand, an organization’s scheduling system is aware when a provider calls in sick, heads to a meeting, or arrives at the clinic early. With a cloud-based scheduling platform, organizations can achieve near real-time visibility into provider availability across the enterprise.
Consider, then, what can happen when room management software is layered on top of an enterprise scheduling platform. Providers’ movements are then connected to exam room status. The entire organization gains transparency into how providers’ availability affects room availability. That allows staff to quickly and easily move providers into unused rooms and call patients in for appointments faster. Plus, by “tagging” various room attributes—like whether it’s equipped with oxygen or an ENT chair, for instance—such platforms ensure that the proper clinical accommodations are available when providers and patients need them.
Such real-time visualization of room availability can have a substantial impact on health system revenue. One regional health system, for example, calculated that underutilization in its orthopedic clinic costs at least $2,000 per provider per day in lost revenue.
Another large health system quantified the effect from a different perspective. It contemplated how maximizing capacity would enable increased patient throughput without investing in additional space or staff. With that in mind, the organization determined that every one percent increase in utilization results in an annual operational savings of $140,000.
At the neurology clinic, solving “the motel problem” by implementing a solution to standardize capacity generated both revenue growth and increased provider satisfaction. The organization has captured revenue previously missed through underutilization and has recognized that revenue scales directly proportional to volume.
To that end, gaining visibility into capacity has helped the clinic achieve a 7.4 percent increase in patient visits and a 4.7 percent increase in-clinic session volume. As important, providers now trust that the right exam rooms will be ready for them when needed—just like a reservation at a high-end hotel.
About Rich Miller
Rich Miller is the Chief Strategy Officer of QGenda, a healthcare workforce management provider, enabling organizations to optimize capacity across the enterprise. Leading physician groups, hospitals, academic medical centers, and enterprise health systems use QGenda to optimize their workforce which allows them to provide the best possible patient care.