When it comes to booking a flight, the process of selecting departure and arrival destinations, specific dates of travel, and preferred seats can be completed in less than 15 minutes. Efficient, convenient, and — despite our propensity to complain about late flights — delivered with relatively good performance: A vast majority of people make it safely to their destination every day.
If the airline industry has figured out how to optimize this system, why hasn’t health care?
The recent VA wait times controversy has brought to light an enormous issue plaguing the U.S. health care delivery system: Patients are forced to wait inappropriate — and sometimes deadly — lengths of time before they see doctors and receive treatment.
While some argue that we simply don’t have enough physicians to serve the rapidly growing patient demand, the deeper underlying cause of this serious problem is our ineffective patient referral system. The current system — one based largely on paper protocols and physician-to-physician relationships — often matches patients with an incorrect or improperly qualified physician to treat their specific condition. This leads to re-referrals, resulting in higher costs and potentially life-threatening delays to appropriate treatment.
Why does this matter?
For the patient, the consequences for a misdirected referral can range from a re-referral to the appropriate provider (which costs the patient another copay and likely another several weeks of waiting) to the patient receiving treatment from the wrong specialist. This not only compromises patient experience and satisfaction but can also lead to poor outcomes and increased costs.
What about the doctor? When physicians receive patients who are inappropriate for their practice, it frustrates them. After all, they want to treat patients for whom they’ll have the biggest opportunity to make a measurable impact. Specialists train for many years to diagnose and deliver highly specific care. When the system fails to send them these types of patients, they are handicapped from practicing at the “top of their license.” As a result, many physicians begin to block their calendars in a way that reduces access and increases wait times.
The ability to get patients to the right doctor, the first time, is an essential step towards maximizing physician capacity, minimizing wasteful visits to physicians who are unqualified to manage a specific condition, and improving the quality of care and overall experience for patients.
How do we solve this?
The airline industry tapped into big data long before it was a buzzword. It is time that the health care industry did the same.
Advanced analytical techniques applied to the referral system can improve the precision and quality of patient-provider matching and appointment scheduling. But the problem can’t be solved by simply dabbling in just a handful of data sources or consumer reviews. What’s needed is a major shift in mindset and process — a new way of thinking about the patient-doctor matching system that integrates billions of real-time data points.
We need to incorporate modern tools and technology that integrate with existing hospital IT systems to empower patients and connect them with the qualified physicians they need to provide them high-quality care from the start.
Several technology vendors, like my own company, Kyruus, are hard at work building and deploying solutions to address this issue. But technology itself won’t be enough to solve it completely. Stakeholders from across the entire health care ecosystem, including hospital executives and physicians themselves, must align themselves organizationally, operationally, and culturally along the common goal of enhancing access and the patient experience.
Patient access is established at the first point of contact. Patient engagement does not start in the doctor’s office — it begins before they even book their appointment.
Dr. Graham Gardner is CEO and co-founder of Kyruus, which uses big data to help hospitals and other organizations get patients to the right provider.