At the Helm

'Access' isn't just a buzzword. Here's what 15 health care leaders shared about their strategies

by Michele Molden, MBA

Helping patients access health care is an age-old problem, but it's also an ever changing one and was rated the #1 issue of interest for CEOs in a recent Advisory Board survey. This summer, we held our first-ever Patient Access Executive Summit where we spent a full day unpacking what it actually means to focus on patient access to care.

Progressive health care leaders—including our co-host James Demopoulos from Lehigh Valley Physician Group—led the discussions, and it was inspiring to hear different perspectives on why this issue is so important to our members. One participant put it best: "We're not selling widgets. Patients and people are involved at the end of the day."

But there's no playbook to follow, and designing an access-optimized infrastructure is a complex puzzle that keeps changing form. Here are a few key takeaways from the Summit that I came away with:

1. Access starts with a clear vision and sponsorship

Across the 14 organizations present, different constituencies owned patient access operations at almost every one—spanning from chief marketing officers, to individual hospital presidents, to chief medical officers. And it's understandable, since access operations cross functions and departments. In many ways, this focused competency is still emerging and dedicated patient access teams (unicorns in our view) are still rare. We were excited to have a few directors of patient access in the room for the summit, but the group was mostly CEOs, COOs and VPs of operations, medical directors, and other network leaders who are very much focused on improving access to care at their organizations.

The important thing is that leaders clearly define and consistently communicate a purpose and vision across the system and its functions in order to ensure success. Our co-host shared that Lehigh Valley defines access as "every touch point between the patient and our health network, bi-directional and relentless in nature, in the pursuit of true and meaningful patient partnerships in their health, care, and experience." This mission statement ensures that when it comes to access, everyone at Lehigh Valley is speaking the same language.

Still, to truly transition access to care from a project orientation to department orientation, creating a structure of ownership is crucial—whether that's setting up a new and dedicated team or a structure wherein existing teams work together in a new way.

2. You can't get anywhere without your physicians on board

We all know physicians are burnt out at rates higher than we used to see. But without physicians—like any important initiative—advancing access to care is an elusive goal. So how do you engage them while recognizing the burden of change?

First, give physicians the reins to lead the change. One presenter walked us through how his organization put together a guiding coalition of physicians to lead the operational redesign—with the expectation that they should challenge the status quo and ensure that physicians' needs are being met so they can provide high quality care to their patients. Next, support those physicians with the tools and insights they need to rally champions. For example, one of our attendees brought data to his providers who struggled getting patients in for appointments—he showed them that patients will actually go to another doctor or health system (or avoid care altogether) if they aren't able to get on the schedule for more than a week or two, which was very meaningful to the doctors.

3. Metrics are easy to get—insights are much harder

In a live poll of the attendees, Advisory Board's Duane Reynolds asked the group: "What is the most challenging aspect of access reporting and analytics?" The top answer—capturing 45% of the group—was that there are just too many metrics and data sources to track; after that, 33% said the biggest challenge is in making data actionable. While most of us may have access to relevant data, it's incredibly hard to think holistically about those data points, balance real-time and lagging metrics, and know which levers to pull for the greatest impact.

Additionally, the attendees acknowledged that we don't have adequate industry benchmarks when it comes to measuring patient access to care. For example, if it takes an average patient 45 days to get an appointment, that's not the target to strive for—so organizations need to set goals that better honor and reflect their mission to patients.

4. You don't have to tackle everything at once

It takes an investment in organizational development to move from pockets of access to a network-wide strategy and solution. However, it's impractical to focus on every practice, physician, or initiative right off the bat.

For example, Lehigh Valley deployed a strategic plan that broke practices into three tiers:

  1. Pilot practices, where they implemented identified solution bundles and went through systemic transformation;
  2. A broader group of practices, where the team focused on piloting targeted elements; and
  3. The remainder of the practices, where they included patient experience teams, workshops, and shared learning opportunities.

While the entire effort required an investment from the organizational development team, with 12 people dedicated to the initiative, this layered approach allowed the organization to deploy resources efficiently and place more emphasis on the practices most in need of transformation.

Next, benchmark your patient access performance

Advisory Board estimates that the average 350 bed hospital stands to gain $22M by achieving best practice in the revenue cycle, and it all starts with the front-end.

To see how yours stacks up, compare your metrics to our 15 patient access benchmarks.

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