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How Penn State Health transformed its radiology scheduling

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The system developed a new platform making it easier for patients to get appointments, stemming the loss of patients to other providers, and improving revenue.

Penn State Health had been experiencing serious problems in scheduling radiology appointments.

Image: Penn State Health

Kyle Snyder of Penn State Health touts the value of a new scheduling platform for radiology that's improving revenue and helping patients get appointments more quickly.

Some patients had long waits for appointments. Some were sent to a location that actually wasn’t able to do the patient’s test, requiring another appointment.

Contributing to the headaches, the central Pennsylvania health system didn’t have a scheduling system that could help direct patients to locations where they could be seen sooner. Kyle Snyder, president of Hampden Medical Center and Holy Spirit Medical Center at Penn State Health, recalls the frustrations for the patients and the system.

“The challenge for us really was that we were lacking a scheduling process and a technology that allowed us to sort of see what our capacity was across the system,” Snyder tells Chief Healthcare Executive®.

So Penn State Health devised a new scheduling platform for radiology appointments. So far, it’s paying impressive dividends, the system says. Patients can get appointments more quickly, and patients aren’t being sent to the wrong location for tests. The health system has already seen a $2 million increase in revenue, and fewer patients are going elsewhere for appointments.

Penn State Health also devised the new platform in an unusual way. And Snyder says the benefits are going beyond the improved revenue and upgrades in services to patients.

Snyder says the new platform, and the process of developing it, helped produce more relationships and a greater sense of the organization as a health system. To use Snyder’s term, the project has helped instill a “system-ness.” And Penn State Health says the tool could be a model to improve scheduling for other services.

Devising a solution

As Snyder notes, Penn State Health is a growing and relatively young system. The system has opened two new hospitals in the past few years.

In October 2022, Penn State Health opened a new, $375 million hospital in Lancaster County. Penn State Health opened a hospital just outside of Harrisburg, the state capital, in October 2021. And in 2020, Penn State Health took ownership of Holy Spirit Hospital in a deal with Geisinger. In addition, Penn State Health is still getting some of its physician practices onto its electronic health record system (Penn State uses Cerner’s system).

With all of those recent initiatives, Snyder says it was important to devise a new scheduling platform without relying on the information technology department. With the IT department facing so many other demands, Snyder says he hoped to move faster developing the platform in a different way.

Charles Franquet, Penn State Health’s senior consultant for operational excellence, helped assemble an interdisciplinary team to develop the scheduling platform. The team gathered the input of providers, technologists, and the schedulers, who actually have to use the platform to make appointments.

Franquet points to the value of Lean Six Sigma methodology, to identify the problem up front and how to deal with different variables, such as whether patients needed an MRI or a CT scan.

The team created filters, to account for physician orders, along with the age and weights of patients, and other factors, such as if the patient had a pacemaker. With the new platform, schedulers could now help patients find appointments across the system.

Franquet says the team worked to develop a fairly simple database that would be user-friendly for schedules.

“We tried to streamline it as best we could,” Franquet says. “The process went very, very fast. And in fact for many of us on the team, we were taken aback, if you will, how quickly we were accelerating and making progress on this.”

“In a nutshell, what this really comes down to is that we built this very simple database tool that did not include or require the resources of IT,” he adds. “That was very important, because we didn't want to include any additional teams or resources that we saw as not particularly necessary for this first step.”

Franquet says the project also led to the development of new relationships across Penn State Health.

Reducing leakage

Before the development of the platform, Snyder says it was difficult to get a handle on when patients could get an appointment. Anecdotally, Snyder says he’d hear some radiology locations would have waits of 30 days or more, while others said they could see patients in a matter of days.

All too often, patients were sent to a location that couldn’t perform a specific test, leading some patients to go to another provider. In the competitive central Pennsylvania health market, patients have other options, and some went elsewhere.

Penn State Health was seeing “considerable leakage,” Snyder says. The system knew it had to improve the experience in scheduling for customers.

“You get one chance to do it the right way,” Snyder says. “And if you don't do it the right way, there's no real incentive for the customer to stay in the system. They can call up one of our competitors and be in their office.”

With the new platform, the accuracy in appointments rose to 99% at the end of December, the system says. Patients are getting appointments more quickly.

With the new platform, the system is improving capacity. In fact, he says, “We're sort of playing catch up because we just don't have enough MRI technologists to run our magnets, for as many hours a day as we want to run.”

Now, Snyder says, “Schedules are full.”

Penn State Health also now has a scheduling platform that can be adapted to other services. The cardiovascular line has wants to adopt the platform for its scheduling. There are some added complexities to modifying the platform for cardiology, but Snyder says the work is beginning.

Overall, Snyder says Penn State Health is taking valuable lessons from the new radiology platform.

“I think this taught our health system a lot about how we can sort of leverage the collective power of all of the assets and all the people that we have,” Snyder says. “I mean, obviously, there's been revenue enhancement. Obviously, there's been some patient experience enhancement, shorter duration for wait times. We're utilizing our equipment and our people more effectively.

“But when I look back and see the things that I think people were most impressed about, in this initiative, it really was how it brought us together as a system around a common problem and I think it provided a template that others have jumped on,” Snyder adds. “And it's kind of cool to watch that happen.”

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