It’s been nearly two decades since I graduated from medical school. I think back and I honestly do not remember any lectures about transitions of care.
During residency, I remember some attending physicians would insist that when I discharged patients from the hospital, the patients had to leave with post-discharge appointments in hand. Like any diligent intern, I did as I was told. I telephoned the administrative assistants in clinic and booked follow-up appointments for my patients. I always asked for the first available appointment. Why? Because that was what my senior resident told me to do. I suspect he learned that from his resident as well.
Sometimes the appointment was scheduled for the week following discharge; other times it was six months later. I honestly didn’t give it much thought. There was a blank on the discharge paperwork and I filled it in with a date and time. I was doing my job—or so I thought.
Can you imagine if someone just gave you a slip of paper today telling you when to show up to get your teeth cleaned without consulting your schedule? How about scheduling the oil change for your car at a garage 100 miles away? Seems pretty silly, doesn’t it? Nothing about it seems customer-centric or cost-efficient.
With such a system in place, why are we surprised when patients do not show up for their follow-up appointments? When the patient presents to the ED later and is readmitted to the hospital, we label them as “non-compliant” because they failed to show up for their follow-up appointment.
Inefficient, Ineffective, Inappropriate
There are multiple problems with the above situation. The first problem: Why are doctors calling to schedule follow-up appointments in the first place? Do we ask airline pilots to serve refreshments? I suppose they could, but I’d rather they concentrate on flying the plane. It also seems like an awful waste of money and resources when we could accomplish the same feat with less-expensive airline attendants who are better trained to interact with passengers.
At most teaching hospitals across the country, I suspect we still rely on trainees to book follow-up appointments for patients. At hospitals without trainees, I suspect some of this responsibility falls on nurses and unit coordinators. Again, I wonder how often these people are actually in a position to schedule an appointment that the patient is likely to keep—or whether they are filling in a box on a checklist like I used to do.
How do other industries address this issue? Well, many utilize customer service representatives to help consumers book their appointments. Some industries have advanced software, which allows consumers to book their own appointment online. I have to tell you that I am chuckling as I write this. I’m chuckling not because this is funny—I am just amazed that something that is so common sense is not utilized consistently across the hospital industry. When was the last time you actually called a hotel to book a room? Most of us find it so much more convenient to book airline tickets or hotel rooms online.