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How to Improve Patient Flow Amidst Staff Shortages and Increasing Demand

| March 20, 2023 | By

Doctor reviewing test results with a patient

An efficient patient flow management process is important to the success and revenue of any medical facility. Unfortunately, difficult circumstances such as increasing demand and staff shortages can highlight major flaws in a facility’s patient flow process. These issues lead to patients staying longer than necessary, low utilization of expensive resources, incorrect diagnoses, inadequate medical care, and more.

Patient flow management describes the process of patient movement through a particular healthcare facility. It includes the systems and processes involved in getting a patient from the admission phase to the discharge phase; the resources required (i.e., people, equipment, medicine, and rooms); and the care given to patients by hospital staff.

Patient flow management can be complex because there’s rarely one answer to the problem. Hospitals are faced with resource constraints (rooms, nurses, equipment, etc), high variability across the hospital (patient arrival, operational, discharge, etc), and complex system interactions that make it difficult to know what changes will have an impact in the real world. This was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, which only exacerbated the already-existing shortage of qualified medical nurses. Difficult economic times can hinder a medical facility’s patient flow management, or worsen an already subpar process. 

Factors That Hinder Effective Patient Flow Management

Many factors impact patient flow management. These factors have been increasing for many years and were only exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic

1. Staffing Shortages Required to Provide Proper Care

A decades-long nursing shortage was worsened by nationwide hospital layoffs during the pandemic. In addition, many nurses left the profession entirely due to stress, long hours, and fears for their own health and safety.

This shortage led to a high demand for traveling nurses, who were paid from $50-$100 per hour. The added cost put a larger financial strain on hospitals, which many staffing agencies believe is unsustainable in the long-term.

2. Resource Availability and Scheduling Constraints 

Hospitals have limited resources. The most publicly known shortage is the shortage of nurses, but hospitals often lack capacity due to low equipment availability, room availability, and other labor constraints. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some hospitals reported significantly longer emergency room wait times, which increased the average wait time by several hours in some locations. This issue was partially blamed on a significant backlog of surgeries. Once elective procedures resumed following the lockdowns in 2020, a high influx of cases led to a shortage of space for patients. 

These limitations, and their impact on patients, were well known prior to COVID-19. By improving resource management and scheduling, hospitals can improve patient flow, service, and resource utilization, while preventing long wait times for patients and low morale among employees. 

As an example, one New Jersey hospital used digital simulation to understand how optimal staffing has a higher positive impact than other more costly alternatives to solving these resource challenges. 

3. Inefficient and Redundant Processes 

Inefficient and redundant processes have a high impact on patient flow management. Processes are as important as optimal staffing in the hospital. Without the right processes, hospitals see an increase in costs and a decrease in patient satisfaction. 

In this case study, a health system looked to evaluate process designs and compare the performance of processes in the overall system design. The proposed design change significantly reduced the length of stay for patients of specific severity levels and increased system capacity. 

How SimWell Improves Patient Flow Management

As more hospitals and medical facilities look to improve their patient flow management process, using the right technology can help.

SimWell helps hospitals and medical facilities improve patient flow by:

  • Building and analyzing healthcare processes with simulation, including a data-driven simulation model that predicts likely outcomes and helps hospitals meet their objectives
  • Providing healthcare facilities a simulation to test and compare scenarios before making a decision about a future operation
  • Using the simulation model to capture, process, and analyze a wider range of details than an analytical model, providing increased accuracy and more precise forecasting
  • Identifying bottlenecks, preventing under- or over-utilization of resources, and optimizing system performance with simulation modeling tests prior to changing an existing system process or building an entirely new system
  • Prioritizing safety and security
  • Improving stakeholder adoption by demonstrating how changes impact the system 

Boost Your Patient Flow Process with SimWell

As medical care becomes more complex, hospitals are turning to simulation models to test changes and understand which decision is best before investing time and money in a real-world application.

With a simulation model built by SimWell, medical facilities can test changes in a risk-free environment, saving time and money while helping providers work more efficiently and delivering better patient outcomes. 

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