Block Scheduling: Understanding the Benefits for Your Practice and Team
Right after I opened my second veterinary practice, there was a period of time when the appointment book remained empty. We could have scheduled an appointment at any time, as soon as the client could come in. That now seems like the distant past — because today, like most established practices, we are oversubscribed and struggling to meet demand.
Block scheduling offers one potential solution, and it has allowed us to take control of our workflow, keep client wait times more consistent, and limit burnout among our team.
What Is Block Scheduling?
At its core, this organizational method is about creating patterns that repeat in your schedule and assigning those patterns to particular days and times for each doctor. We know that some appointments, like preventive care visits, usually run to schedule. These can be relatively light on doctor time, with many services handled by the technician team. Illness and injury, on the other hand, can be much harder to predict and often require frequent and ongoing input from the doctor as tests are completed and treatments are identified.
In addition to wellness visits, there are other services — surgery, ultrasound, or dentistry — that work best if the doctor is exclusively focused on them. Identifying and allocating time for each appointment type is the first step. It's likely that your practice management software will also allow you to color-code the appointments so you can see what's coming in at a glance. These are the categories I use at my practice:
- Medical progress and wellness exams: These are 20-minute slots that mostly run to schedule. New clients and patients are noted by a separate color so the doctor is aware they may need extra information or support.
- Illness and injury: We allocate 30-minute appointments for nonroutine cases that can be booked in advance. Examples include skin conditions or ongoing joint issues.
- Same-day sickness or injury: We allow 40 minutes for these on our schedule. Considered a non-emergency, they can be booked into an available slot on the schedule. Examples include vomiting or diarrhea.
- Emergencies: You can't plan for genuine emergencies, be it heatstroke or a dog fight. True emergencies can't be scheduled but still need an appointment type and color.
- Other procedures: From an ultrasound workup to surgery, doctors need to be able to focus on these tasks. The amount of time needed is determined by the doctor who can then slot it into their allocated block.
Building the Template Schedule
With your procedure types mapped out, you can then create a schedule that minimizes crunches on your team. We found these rules to be a good guide:
- Stagger the flow of appointments. By mixing appointment types, you can reduce the number of clients arriving at the same time, reducing pressure on your customer service representative (CSR) team and conflict in the lobby.
- Nonroutine appointments consume more resources and are less predictable in their flow, so try to offset them and ensure you don't have two starting in the same time slot.
- Establish an alternating exam pattern of preventive care and sick care. Schedule a sick-patient exam between two preventive ones, as they are more predictable and likely to remain on time.
- Procedures like surgery can be contained in a larger unit; the doctor can then further allocate time within that block. Any unused time can be opened up to appointments.
- Leave space for same-day appointments. Data in your practice management software can indicate how many you encounter on average each day. Most practices see more walk-ins on Mondays and Saturdays, for instance, so look for patterns in your data.
- Start to fill the emergency appointments 90 minutes before they start. This applies to other open slots, as well. Don't turn a patient away just because you don't have the "right" slot available today.
- Avoid scheduling an emergency block in the final hour before closing or a nonroutine visit as the last appointment of the doctor's day. If a client calls in for an end-of-day emergency, require doctor sign-off, charge an emergency fee, or redirect to an emergency care facility if needed.
With the schedule template created and shared with your CSR team, they can start booking appointments. We found this also helped our team to better guide clients to the times we want — for example, giving a client two set options for an appointment rather than asking when they would like to come in.
Measuring the Benefits
As with all changes you implement, it's important to make sure the impact on your practice is positive. Controlling our schedule significantly reduced the time that a client waited before seeing the doctor, which increased the number of clients seen within 10 minutes of their appointment times. We also saw a reduction in overtime and stress on our team members as they no longer tried to deal with multiple nonroutine cases at once.
One additional unexpected benefit was an increase in the average transaction fee of our wellness appointments. With the doctor team running closer to schedule, they had more time to focus on the patient in the room. This, in turn, leads to discussions about comprehensive wellness care, like routine bloodwork or cardiac care. Better informed clients who feel the doctor is taking an active interest in them and their pet are more likely to commit to their long-term health.
Veterinarians see so many different types of cases, each with their own requirements of the doctor and support team, that it can be difficult to keep everything running smoothly. Although it may be a challenge to stick rigidly to a scheduled plan, establishing one can make your practice a better place to work while providing provide better long-term care to patients.