We’re sorry, your appointment has been delayed!

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health SystemHave you ever boarded a flight and only moments after getting settled in and buckled up, the captain announced a mechanical issue? Thirty minutes later, still sitting on the tarmac, your frustration starts to mount as you realize you’ll have trouble making your next connection. Have you ever experienced a cancellation that forced you to wait hours for the next flight, and upon arrival at your destination in the Continental United States, you learned your baggage was on its way to Hawaii? I’m sure most of us have been there in some form or fashion at least once, and the more you travel, the more you’re bound to run into the occasional cancellation or delay. Airlines use checklists to ensure every safety measure has been taken before passengers board the airplane, but with tight schedules and high demand, there are sometimes operational issues that can’t be avoided.

From my perspective as a customer, I can’t help but wonder what is really going on behind the scenes when these inconveniences occur. Was it genuinely something that couldn’t be avoided, or was it poor planning or ambivalence? For many of us, when there is an unexpected or unreasonably long wait, it tends to influence our impression of the service we receive. We might even tell others about the quality of our experience. It may also cause us to reconsider our choice of airline the next time we book a flight. I recently read an article in H&HN Magazine that says among the 12 largest airlines, one airline ‘gets it right’ (via flights that leave on time, arrive safely and without deplaning incidents or baggage mishaps) 76 percent of the time. That means one in four flights will have a disappointing result. Whether it’s the fault of the airline or a complication of how the aviation system operates, passengers who are stranded in airports, delayed, inconvenienced or put on hold for hours when trying to reach a customer service representative blame the airline.

Health care is often compared to the airline industry when it comes to safety, high-reliability operations and customer service. Just as with airlines, in health care, customers (our patients) are watchful of our performance. Experiences like a long wait for an appointment can be frustrating. A last-minute rescheduled appointment is most often an inconvenience. It might make a person wonder why their health care provider cannot answer their phone in a reasonable time, or take weeks – or even months – to get them an appointment. Don’t they care about their patients’ time? Why is it taking so long to get a return phone call? Do they make mistakes? Our patients also rely on us to quickly resolve problems. Their experience, whether positive or negative, has the potential to influence their perception of us as a provider and as a result, has the potential to affect our reputation.

Improvement is a continual process, and we are always looking at ways we can enhance the patient experience at UTMB. As far as access improvement, a great deal of effort has been put into improving our processes from an overall health system perspective. We are continuing this work with a focus on specialty services, where we sometimes have longer waits for appointments. To help improve access, we have decentralized specialty care appointment scheduling during regular business hours to make it easier for clinics to work patients into available appointment slots. We also created the ability for patients to view and make appointments online in primary care and selected specialty services via MyChart.

We know that in each specialty, patients have unique needs. We also realize patients sometimes have preferences, such as which provider they would like to see and on what day and time. As a result, even though we can implement broad solutions to improve access, each department will also need unique solutions for their area and their patients. We have a lot of possibilities at our finger tips. It is important to keep in mind, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to making major access improvements in each specialty, so it will require a combination of strategies, like exploring the use of telemedicine for consultations where it makes sense logistically and partnering with primary care to provide certain screening services. As we all strive to make these improvements, we will find that some of those solutions end up being so effective, they will work on a wider scale, improving the patient experience for all.

Through teamwork, collaboration and exploring the use of technology and the data we collect, we will find many great opportunities to take patient service and access to the next level. There is a saying, “Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.” I know those of you who work directly with our patients and work within our systems have great ideas, and I believe in the talent and innovative spirit of everyone at this organization. Let’s demonstrate once again the kind of ingenuity we have at UTMB. If we can move the needle in our Best Care initiative from a rank of 76th place to 19th place among 102 academic medical centers in just nine short months, we can move the needle in any area we choose! Let’s make a difference this year in access, providing Best Care to each patient, each time, when they expect it!

“The man who moves a mountain begins carrying away small stones.”
– Confucius