How Virtual Queuing Helps Triaging and the Patient Experience

By Eldar Erlich, Associate Product Manager, Qtrac by Lavi Industries

One of the reasons many patients dread visiting a healthcare provider is the wait they might be forced to experience. There might be a wait to check in, a wait to be called, a wait to actually be seen by the practitioner, a wait to get lab work or an X-ray done, a wait to get the results, and so on …

In the COVID-19 era, long waits aren’t just inconvenient and uncomfortable—they’re counterintuitive to quality care. A crowded lobby can be unnerving, and the thought of a stressful wait can lead people to not seek care when they might really need it. For walk-in providers, such as urgent care facilities, labs, pharmacies, and vaccination clinics, a poor patient experience can also impact the bottom line.

Although some healthcare waits are unavoidable, providers—particularly ones that rely on walk-in traffic or experience waits just for patients with appointments to check in—still should do what they can to improve the patient experience, if not shorten wait times. Virtual queuing technology offers a way to create efficiency while easing a bit of the burden on patients who require care.

Technology to Provide a More Human Experience

Virtual queue management is often associated with retail stores and DMVs—anyplace that is notorious for long lines and crowded waiting areas or where the amount of customers might be unpredictable. For healthcare providers, the technology achieves many of the same goals—the only difference is that instead of returning an item or renewing a driver’s license, the customer is receiving healthcare. The stakes are obviously higher, but virtual queuing rises to the challenge.

A queue management system for a healthcare business generally works as follows:

  • Walk-in patients check into the system by scanning a QR code, sending a text message to a displayed number, entering their information into a kiosk, or working with a receptionist or greeter who manually inputs their info.
  • While they wait, patients can securely provide additional information, such as the reason for their visit, symptoms they might be feeling, basic healthcare history, insurance info, virtual signatures on confidentiality notices, and anything else that would otherwise be gathered later by the receptionist, nurse, or clerk.
  • The system sends notifications, including estimated wait times, directly to patients’ phones via text message.
  • Employees can send additional questions and comments to patients, who either send a text to reply directly or tap a link that opens a webpage in their phone’s browser.
  • When a patient’s turn comes up, they receive an alert to return to the lobby (if they aren’t already there).

The best virtual queuing solutions don’t require patients to download a separate application to their phones. They also can be integrated with providers’ other systems, such as scheduling, billing, and EHRs.

Lessening the Burden of Waiting

The time spent in the lobby waiting often is a great unknown for patients. They don’t know how long their wait will be, and they might not understand why that person who just got here was called back before they were.

A virtual queue eliminates much of this uncertainty by sending estimated wait times to patients after they check in. Estimates are based on a variety of factors (e.g., number of patients waiting, number of practitioners on hand, day of the week, time of the day, and so on) and are computed by the system’s algorithms—which become more accurate as more queue data accumulates.

With these estimates, patients are freed to wait on their own terms. If the system is saying the wait will be 30 minutes, a patient can go for a stroll, return to their car, get a cup of coffee, or anything else they want to do. Part of the stress of waiting is the fear that if you step away from the lobby, you’ll miss your turn. Virtual queuing removes that risk.

Of course, an argument can be made that an appointment-only strategy can mitigate long waits. But most providers know that even with appointments, patients often still wait upon arriving, both to check in with the receptionist and then to be seen. A queue management system solves this problem by allowing patients with appointments to bypass the receptionist and then offering an estimate on how long the wait will be. Appointments can also be combined with walk-ins, giving healthcare businesses a way to maximize their operations without creating extra queue management challenges.

Better Care, Before and After

Perhaps the greatest benefit of virtual queue management to patients—and to providers—is the ability to triage people based on their healthcare needs and circumstances. Although this might seem best suited for urgent care facilities, other providers can also take advantage of the queuing technology’s priority potential.

When a patient requiring care checks in to the virtual queue management system, they may be asked to share the nature of their healthcare need and symptoms they might be feeling. The system can be configured to identify which patients and which conditions should be prioritized—and those patients are then triaged accordingly in the virtual queue. Or a nurse or another employee may keep an eye on the queue and be alerted automatically by the system when a patient needs immediate attention or has been waiting a long time.

With technology assisting the triage, patients who need more timely care are more likely to receive it. In non-urgent settings, care also improves simply because patients aren’t waiting as long. For example, if a walk-in vaccine clinic inside a hospital unexpectedly becomes inundated with people needing a booster, the system can identify the unusually long queue and alert an administrator, who then can divert extra nurses from other departments to the clinic to handle the rush.

Because patients are giving key details upon check-in, medical personnel already have that information when they begin attending to someone. This also improves care. Patients don’t have to explain themselves again and again, and nurses, PAs, and doctors can get to treatment sooner.

Usable Data

Virtual queuing systems collect all sorts of data, from the time patients check in to after their care is completed—and even beyond, if customer satisfaction surveys are integrated into the experience. As already mentioned, this data helps compute estimated wait times, but the metrics offer much more insight, including:

  • Peak and slow periods
  • Average wait times in the lobby
  • Total time needed for care
  • Reasons patients visited/care most often needed
  • Walk-in traffic

With this wide range of comprehensive data, providers can make real operational decisions beyond just how patients wait for care. For example, the numbers at an urgent care clinic might show that Monday mornings bring in a higher number of sick kids than any other time during the week, or that Saturdays see the most stitches and the longest waits to tend to those wounds. With this intelligence, the clinic can schedule more pediatric specialists on Mondays and extra PAs on Saturdays.

The data also helps with triaging. If metrics show, for example, that the average patient struggling with a cough and shortness of breath—which are both symptoms of COVID-19—waits 20 minutes longer than someone with an ankle sprain, the system can be adjusted to prioritize the wheezing patient. In this way, the data is not only improving care but also creating a better waiting experience because you don’t want the person showing COVID symptoms to be sharing the virus with other patients.

Whether virtual queuing data is assisting providers in real time or over the long term—or both—the system also eases the burden on staff. Employees who are less stressed trying to manage the lobby are better able to focus on individual patients. In a time when the quality of care is more crucial than ever, that also benefits the customers you’re serving.

Associate Product Manager Eldar Erlich is in charge of the development and implementation of Qtrac’s virtual queuing product. Prior to this position, he was a QA manager at Lavi Industries, the company that founded Qtrac. Eldar also has a background in media and communications.