Mastering Seasonal Scheduling to Achieve Higher Quality Outcomes

By Larissa Long Mar 23, 2023
Mastering Seasonal Scheduling to Achieve Higher Quality Outcomes

Seasonality—the cyclical changes that occur around the same time each year—lends a certain predictability that countless industries have learned to leverage to their benefit. One prominent example: Holiday shopping season. Every fall, shoppers have come to expect Christmas decorations lining store shelves and enticing sales to lure them in. Since retailers rely so heavily on this season to boost profits, they plan months in advance to achieve success. 

In value-based care, primary care providers (PCPs) can use the same concept of seasonality to drive incentives, improve quality outcomes, and increase patient satisfaction—by taking advantage of seasonal scheduling. 

According to Kate Iovinelli, Senior Director of Quality Outcomes and Process Improvement, seasonal scheduling “allows physicians to make sure they are capturing their target audiences during a particular time of the year that corresponds with preventive care services.” 

Nowhere is this concept better illustrated than in the pediatric and adolescent population. 

Seasonal Scheduling & Well Season 

As spring approaches every year, “well season” should be top of mind at pediatric medical offices. Spanning from April to October, well season is historically a time when pediatricians see much higher patient activity, as children ages 3–17 come in for their required wellness exams and sports physicals for the new school year. 

Seasonal scheduling is a way for offices to adjust their schedules to make room for this higher influx of wellness exams. Iovinelli calls it “flipping the schedule.”  

She explains, “More illnesses typically occur in the winter months, so physicians’ schedules during that time of the year will reflect more sick visits. In that April to October time frame, though, the weather is warmer, the windows are open, fewer germs are going around. Provider schedules should reflect more available times for well visits, and offices should take steps to make it easier to accommodate patients who need to get in for those appointments.” 

Seasonal Scheduling Benefits Everyone

The practice of seasonal scheduling benefits parents, patients, and physicians alike. 

Unless children are due for an immunization or require a mandated physical for school or sports, oftentimes parents/guardians do not bring them in for wellness exams. By flipping the schedule and prioritizing well visits in the spring and summer months, physicians tend to see better compliance and an increase in the number of appointments that get scheduled.  

Parents appreciate seasonal scheduling, especially when medical offices are mindful to offer early morning or evening appointments so as not to interrupt their work schedule or interfere with school hours.  

“We know the biggest deterrent in an office is long wait times for appointments,” says Iovinelli. “If an office is using seasonal scheduling, the benefit to the parent or guardian is access and availability. When they call for an appointment, they are going to be able to get in quickly for this important physical because the doctor’s schedule allows for it.” 

Without seasonal scheduling, wait times can be long—sometimes several months—which often leads to dissatisfaction. If they can’t get in when they want to, parents may end up using a standalone clinic for their child’s well visit—and physicians may risk losing a member. 

Seasonal scheduling benefits patients too. It keeps them in their established practice with their regular doctor, who is familiar with their medical history and healthcare needs. Maintaining optimal health and wellbeing is vastly important in the pediatric/adolescent population. Up-to-date vaccination largely impacts mortality from preventable diseases, while a comprehensive head-to-toe exam identifies any potential health concerns and eliminates unnecessary emergency department and hospital visits. 

Physicians benefit from seasonal scheduling as it helps prioritize and incentivize annual wellness visits (AWVs)—the cornerstone of good health management. Just as importantly, it fosters stronger relationships with patients and members, which ultimately leads to higher satisfaction and better health outcomes.  

Where Else Can Seasonal Scheduling Work? 

Pediatrics isn’t the only area where seasonal scheduling can be implemented. For adults, though, there’s no “season” for AWVs. They take place all year long at the same frequency, so Iovinelli recommends piggybacking on health awareness campaigns to promote screenings and other preventive care. Some of the most prominent health campaigns include: 

  • February: American Heart Month to focus on cardiovascular screenings 
  • March: Colorectal Cancer Awareness to prompt patients to schedule a colonoscopy if it’s due 
  • May: Skin Cancer Awareness to encourage patients to check their skin for signs of skin cancer and/or visit their PCP or dermatologist for a thorough skin exam 
  • June: Men’s Health Month to remind male patients to schedule their AWV 
  • October: Breast Cancer Awareness to encourage women to get their annual mammogram—which should be easily accessible and readily available through walk-ins or mobile facilities during this month 

Another factor to consider is that by the end of the year, PCP offices may see an influx of members wanting to schedule their AWV for several reasons:  

  • Insurance deductibles have been met and/or funds in health or flexible spending accounts need to be used before January.   
  • Use-it-or-lose-it paid time off prompts some people to handle doctor appointments at the end of the year. Likewise, some people don’t like to use PTO for medical purposes, so they take advantage of company holidays around Thanksgiving and Christmas to get wellness exams or medical procedures. (In fact, Iovinelli says end-of-year colonoscopies are surprisingly common for this very reason.) 

How to Leverage Seasonal Scheduling

There are several things medical offices can do to promote seasonal scheduling and increase wellness exam appointments during those specific times of the year: 

  • Educational videos in waiting rooms, plus pamphlets and/or signage throughout the office encouraging proactive scheduling of AWVs  
  • Email, text, and/or snail-mail postcard reminders to patients  
  • Reminder phone calls to patients who are overdue for AWVs (even better if the office has same-day or same-week availability to offer the patient so they can come in right away) 
  • Promote the practice’s online portal (if applicable) so the patient can self-schedule with their preferred doctor 

Finally, availability and accessibility are key. One of the most important things physicians (especially pediatricians) can do to make their practice stand out is to offer extended hours: early-morning, evening, and/or Saturday hours whenever possible.  

“Many patients cannot or do not like to take time off work for AWVs. Offering extended hours allows them to complete the wellness exam and still go to work without having to take any time off,” says Iovinelli. 

Another simple yet highly effective tactic is to have a “doc of the day” on staff. This provider (it can be a doctor, physician’s assistant, or nurse practitioner) should have a wide-open schedule to handle all same-day appointment requests, thus allowing more time in the schedule for other providers to handle AWVs.

The Bottom Line 

Seasonal scheduling can help physicians transform their practice, allowing them to meet patients’ needs in a sustainable and productive way. In a medical landscape where people are easily frustrated and disenchanted by long wait times and lack of appointment availability, seasonal scheduling is a unique solution to increase patient satisfaction and achieve higher quality outcomes.